Protesters in San Francisco tore down and defaced statues of white men who had enslaved black and indigenous people, targeting statues of Father Junipero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and former US president Ulysses S Grant.
Videos posted on social media and from local news outlets on Friday night show a small crowd in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park cheering as people toppled the monuments with rope, covering them with blood-red paint, and, in at least one instance, dragged them through the grass.
Junipero Serra was a Spanish priest who played a central role in the violent colonization of California. His path towards being canonized as a saint in the Catholic church has long been met with protest from Native Americans.
Serra’s own contemporaries, including French explorer Jean François de Galaup de la Pérouse, compared the Catholic missions the priest founded across California to slave plantations, where indigenous people were forced to work and harshly disciplined.
“By law, all baptized Indians subjected themselves completely to the authority of the Franciscans; they could be whipped, shackled or imprisoned for disobedience, and hunted down if they fled the mission grounds,” PBS News wrote in its biography of Serra. “Indian recruits, who were often forced to convert nearly at gunpoint, could be expected to survive mission life for only about ten years.”
“Everywhere they put a mission the majority of Indians are gone,” Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, told the Guardian in 2015. “Serra knew what they were doing: they were taking the land, taking the crops, he knew the soldiers were raping women, and he turned his head.”
Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem, not only personally enslaved people, but also tried to silence the free speech of abolitionists. He used his position as the district attorney for Washington DC in the 1830s to launch high-profile cases attacking the abolitionist movement.
Protesters dragged the Key statue through the grass and were going to dump it in a nearby fountain, until they were told the fountain was a memorial to the AIDS epidemic and stopped, a witness tweeted.
Grant, a general who fought on the side of the United States during the Civil War, was the last US president to have personally owned another human being. While Grant’s father was an abolitionist, he went on to marry a woman from a slaver family and personally direct the labor of the family’s enslaved workers.
As president, Grant also “launched an illegal war against the Plains Indians, and then lied about it,” as Smithsonian Magazine reported.
Even as Grant was leading battles against the Confederate Army, his wife, Julia, was traveling around army camps with a woman named Jules who was still enslaved, a decision that prompted public condemnation. The Grant family did not free Jules after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; instead, Jules self-emancipated by running away, according to the White House Historical Association.
On Friday, Americans celebrated Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery. Juneteenth also marks the long period of waiting between when the United States government officially ended slavery, and when formerly enslaved people across the country actually learned they were free.