|Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, April 15, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
In the heart of California’s Gold Country, debate has seethed in Placerville for nearly a year over the presence of a macabre symbol in the background of the city’s official logo. Above the words “Old Hangtown” (a reference to Placerville’s Gold Rush-era moniker) and behind an illustration of a miner panning for gold, a noose hangs ominously from a tree.
As my colleague Lila Seidman writes, the symbol “has been equally described as an indelible part of the area’s history and a shameful reminder of it” in the Sierra foothills town.
On Tuesday, after hours of heated public comment, Placerville’s City Council voted unanimously to remove the noose from the city’s logo. Here’s a look at how they got there.
[Read the story: “Gold Rush past, post-George Floyd present: Placerville drops noose on city logo after months of debate” in the Los Angeles Times]
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of California history is familiar with the events of Jan. 24, 1848, when a man named James W. Marshall discovered gold while building John Sutter’s sawmill.
The story takes place a few miles away in a town that sprang into being in the months after Marshall’s discovery, as newcomers poured into the not-yet state in search of the Motherlode.
The fledgling city that would become Placerville earned the enduring nickname “Hangtown” in 1849, after three men accused of robbery and attempted murder were sentenced to death by hanging.
All three men — a Chilean national and two French nationals — spoke no English and were not present at the trial where a group of miners sentenced them to death. It’s also worth noting that no evidence against the trio was presented, “beyond their fitting a general description,” according to a history presentation prepared at the request of Placerville officials. Far from an isolated event, the extralegal killing was how justice was often meted out in mining camps.
More than a century and a half later, the violent iconography of Placerville’s history as “Old Hangtown” has morphed into a kind of kitschy civic branding.
The words “Old Hangtown” greet visitors from a large sign looming above Highway 50 and echo on murals throughout town, as my colleague Erika D. Smith observed on a visit to Placerville last year. Now reduced to a stump, the white oak tree that once served as a gallows sits in the cellar of a bar on Main Street. A dummy named George hangs from a noose above the second story of the bar.
Calls to remove the city’s nickname — and the imagery associated with it — began circulating last summer shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked widespread racial justice protests.
“Let’s not pretend to be tone-deaf,” the originator of a petition to remove “Old Hangtown” from the city’s welcome sign wrote last year. “The name ‘Hangtown’ is threatening, outdated and offensive, and suggests that racial hate crimes are acceptable.”
As Seidman reports, those urging the city to “lose the noose” said they weren’t trying to erase local history but rather glorify more worthy aspects — namely ones that don’t evoke violence, death and mob justice.
“Handing my card to somebody with this noose on it that’s from a city with a high African American or Latino population, what signal does that send?” Placerville City Councilmember Michael Saragosa asked during Tuesday’s meeting, shortly before the unanimous vote to remove the noose from the city’s logo. “Yes, I could maybe try and have a history lesson with everybody, every time. But that’s not really something that’s going to happen.”
Saragosa said the issue had “come up in Placerville for at least the last 40 years, in different iterations” and suggested that “if there was Twitter in 1980″ the city might have seen different outcomes at an earlier time.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California and the nation:
Former Minnesota cop charged in shooting of Daunte Wright: Prosecutors announced a charge of second-degree manslaughter against Kim Potter, who a day earlier resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department. Los Angeles Times
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How will Hollywood get back to full speed? After the pandemic, some things may never return to normal. Los Angeles Times
COVID-era scene partner: Actress Katherine Kelly Lang with a mannequin stand-in on the set of “The Bold and the Beautiful” in August 2020. (Sonja Flemming / CBS)
Only 30% of L.A. County men got a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 44% of women. Health reporter Soumya Karlamangla explores the reasons behind the disparity. Los Angeles Times
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
COBRA is free for six months under the COVID relief bill: Americans who lost a job in the last 18 months are able to stay on or join their former employer’s healthcare plan for free through Sept. 30. Los Angeles Times
California lawmakers push for a police misconduct panel and expanded chokehold ban: California law enforcement officers could lose their certification based on the decisions of a panel that includes victims of police misconduct under legislation that moved forward in the Legislature, as lawmakers also supported an expansive ban on policing techniques that obstruct a person’s breathing. If passed, none of the legislation would become law until next year. Los Angeles Times
Almost the entire roster of Huntington Park’s finance department was placed on administrative leave and one staffer was arrested as part of an investigation into a records breach that has sparked competing claims of alleged wrongdoing by city employees. Los Angeles Times
CRIME AND COURTS
Prosecutors allege that Paul Flores killed Kristin Smart in his dorm room during an attempted sexual assault. Flores is charged in the 1996 murder, and authorities are investigating whether he sexually assaulted other women in the San Pedro area. Los Angeles Times
[See also: “The long, twisted, frustrating road to an arrest in the disappearance of Kristin Smart” in the Los Angeles Times]
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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Deaths among Latino immigrants soared by 90% as COVID-19 tore through this Central Valley county. The data include all Latino immigrants who died in Kings County, whether or not they were county residents. Fresno Bee
Were you against getting the COVID-19 vaccine before changing your mind? Or know anyone like this? My colleague Maya Lau would like to speak with you for a story. Contact Lau
Mayor London Breed challenges San Franciscans to patronize only the city’s pandemic-battered small businesses for 30 days. “The challenge is geared toward making city residents think twice when spending their money, and to spotlight our beloved, character-filled local shops and restaurants.” San Francisco Chronicle
There’s a fight over the direction of Black Lives Matter. As my colleague Erika D. Smith writes in a new column, the timing couldn’t be worse. Los Angeles Times
“The Sonoma County wine industry has never before dealt with a public scandal quite like this one.” How Wine Country’s insular nature played a role in Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli’s alleged misconduct. San Francisco Chronicle
A poem to start your Thursday: “Color” by Tina Chang. Poets.org
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Los Angeles: nothing special, 66. San Diego: intervals of sun and clouds, 64. San Francisco: sunny, 57. San Jose: sunny, 68. Fresno: sunny, 77. Sacramento: sunny, 75.
Today’s California memory comes from Sue Firestone:
I grew up in the paradise we call Malibu in the 1960s and early ‘70s. No one can debate the incredible beaches and natural beauty! But the combination of “swinging” parents (absent from any real supervision) and an abundance of drugs, alcohol and firearms available to us teens led to three suicides, murders and several overdoses in 1969. And this was only on Point Dume. My hope is for people to understand why that combination of teens being left alone will self-destruct in a beautiful place unless looked after and loved!
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.