A Statue in Absentia

by on October 20, 2020 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, History, San Diego

by Ernie McCray

Pete Wilson’s statue near Horton Plaza was removed and I feel a little more at ease with my world.

I mean, for a long time, I’ve been tired of looking at his likeness when I’d be out and about downtown to eat or catch a play, or to just stroll and enjoy a beautiful San Diego day.

Every time I came upon that image of him, standing bronzed, smiling, with his hands in his pockets, like he’s your friend, I’d think back on a day in the mid-70’s when he told me “Make yourself in absentia, Mr. McCray” – after I had laid something out I thought he and his City Council should and could do something about.

His response kind of cracked me up, at first, because I had never been dismissed in Latin, but I was deeply disturbed because the mayor asked me to leave just after I had copped a plea for human decency.

I wanted our city to join a movement back then that involved taking a stand against South Africa’s institutionalized racist apartheid system of segregation by divesting from corporations doing business there.

He flat-out didn’t care. The people who demanded that his statue be taken off the streets highlighted that with their claim that, when he was mayor, he “used his influence and power to demonize and dehumanize” Latino and gay communities for political gain.

No greater truth has ever been told, as, for one, this man refused to even meet with leaders from the city’s gay community – at a time when the voices of gay people were on the rise; at a time when a well-known entertainer fought hatefully and vigorously against them gaining equal rights; at a time when a politician in San Francisco, Harvey Milk, shined a bright light on a people’s plight…

San Diego’s leadership just stood by looking on.

Oh, Pete’s bigotry ran deep. And it was never more evident than when he lead the charge for a state proposition that would impose restrictions on undocumented immigrants receiving non-emergency health care, public education, and other vital services in the State of California: Proposition 187.

He made it the focus of his gubernatorial reelection campaign, releasing ads that showed grainy footage of people swarming across the border as an ominous voice intoned: “They keep coming.”

And guess who was to help? Me. And other school principals throughout the state.

We were supposed to verify the legal status of both students and their parents which forced me to write an op-ed piece for the San Diego Evening Tribune, saying in so many words:

“Knowing the hurt and humiliation of being considered “less than” there’s absolutely no way I can take part in harassing my Brown sisters and brothers.

“There is no way I could ask anyone in my school community to prove their citizenship in this country to me.

“Besides, who am I, and who are we, to stand in the way of human beings who are struggling to house and feed themselves and their families and live with dignity like the rest of humanity?”

There’s nothing in my being that could align with such a blatant display of racism, with such hatred.

A supporter of the then governor says that Proposition 187 wasn’t about race, that it didn’t single out Latinos, that it addressed all undocumented people regardless of their ethnicity or country or origin.

Well, what else could a racist say as it’s through denials and pseudo-rationalizations that racism has managed to stay in circulation.

But, on the bright side, there’s one less symbol of prejudiced thinking in town as Pete Wilson’s bronze life-sized statue of him smiling with his hands in his pocket has been taken down.

It’s in absentia.

What goes around comes around.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie October 21, 2020 at 10:17 am

Fortunately, California voters rejected Petey as one of our senators. Wilson had a “green streak” at the beginning of his career, but viciously veered to the right and became the poster boy for the white racist backlash. Bye-bye.


Carrie Peery October 22, 2020 at 6:14 pm

I agree with you. Why would principals of schools have to check if a family was legal or not?
It is about time that this country admit the it was built on the backs of immigrants of all nationalities as well as slaves.
Great article.
My friend,
Carrie Peery


Thomas Gayton October 22, 2020 at 9:19 pm



Martin Eder January 5, 2021 at 10:42 pm

Thank you Ernie for shedding light on the dark side of Pete Wilson’s history of race-baiting.
His is the essence of a Neo-Confederate icon who got “middle-of-the-road” Californians to go to the right politically by rejecting social peace and ethnic diversity. Wilson played the race card just like Trump did, denouncing Mexican immigrants.

Well the Pete Wilson statue is back!… so it is time to support a new campaign initiated by Enrique Morones to lobby City Council for the statue’s removal. We may need to organize a grassroots campaign and educational project to relearn the sad lessons of racial politics.

Want to get involved? Martin 619-871-9354


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