Italian American supporters of the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia have gone to court to try to block any move by the city to remove the statue, taking a legal step that the Kenney administration says is unnecessary.
George Bochetto, a lawyer representing the Friends of Marconi Plaza, where the statue stands, is seeking court rulings barring a move. A judge turned him down Sunday, but he and city lawyers say they have since been working to draw up a court-approved agreement laying out a process to consider the statue’s future.
The court fight started Sunday night after dozens of statue supporters, some with baseball bats whom Kenney called “vigilantes,” argued with protesters. Observers have said defenders of the statue assaulted others at the park, and a police captain has since been transferred.
Bochetto asked Common Pleas Court Judge Marlene Lachman for an emergency injunction blocking any move, but did not receive one. On Monday, he tried again, asking Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick for a temporary restraining order to bar any move without due process and public consultation under the Home Rule Charter. She told the lawyers to try to reach an agreement she could approve.
City Solicitor Marcel Pratt, the top lawyer in the Kenney administration, appeared at both hearings to oppose Bochetto. While saying Kenney has the right to uproot the statue should a threat to public safety arise, he also said the city has no plans now to move it.
In an interview, Bochetto said statues and other public art “are in the public trust, whether you are for Columbus or against."
“We have deliberative panels” to decide what art the city should display, he said. “It’s not mob rule or who has the biggest gun.”
Bochetto said the plaintiffs include Rich Cedrone, president of the Friends of Marconi Plaza,, and a South Philadelphia resident, Joseph Q. Mirarchi.
Frank Kane, an official with Ironworkers Local 405, which represents riggers who set up cranes and scaffolding, testified during the emergency hearing Sunday night that he had heard from a city official details of a plan to move the statue. He would not identity the official in court or to The Inquirer. City officials said there were no such plans.
Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble on Tuesday dismissed Bochetto’s legal action as “based on a rumor.”
“No injunctions or court orders have been issued against the city,” she said.
“Knowing that the mayor had no plans to remove the statue, Mr. Bochetto still filed another injunction Monday morning anyway,” Gamble added.
She said the administration had promised “that the statue’s removal would go through the Art Commission process." She said the city was seeking to reach a court-approved agreement with Bochetto affirming a process to consider the fate of the statue.
The city planned to put a protective box around the statue, Gamble said in a statement Tuesday; work on it began later Tuesday. Bochetto said he opposed the box, saying the statue must remain visible because of its historic certification. He said he would challenge the boxing in court.
On Monday, Kenney issued a statement calling on the arts panel to review “the statue, its location, and its appropriateness in a public park.”
The statue was presented to the city by Italian American citizens as part of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, and is believed to be the work of Emanuele Caroni, according to Bochetto’s filing, which adds that the statue was moved, by 1982, from the exposition site at Fairmount Park in West Philadelphia, to Marconi Plaza, at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.
It has become the latest flashpoint in protests that have swept the city after the death of George Floyd when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
Kenney acknowledged that “many are now calling for the removal of the statue, and others believe it should remain.” He called Columbus’ historical record “infamous,” saying he “enslaved indigenous people and punished those who failed to meet his expected service by severing limbs, or in some cases, murder.”
Kane, of the Ironworkers, said the union thought the city’s plan was to use nonunion labor to move the statue. He said he based this on conversations with a nonunion contractor whom he would not name.
Earlier this month, the city removed the statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo in the middle of the night.
As protesters have marched across Philadelphia since Floyd was killed last month, the Columbus statue has become a focus of activists demanding its removal. Counter-protesters have sprung up, resenting attacks against a landmark statue and a figure long seen as an Italian American pioneer.
Dozens gathered over the weekend, some armed with baseball bats and other weapons, to stand guard against any vandalism and the rumors the city would cart the statue away. Kenney called the pro-statue protests “vigilantism” and said they were “inappropriate.”
Columbus, an Italian in the service of Spain, was a hero to generations of Americans, but has more recently been a target for activists who see him as a symbol of imperialist oppression.
Columbus was deposed as colonial governor and hauled back to Spain in chains on charges of illegally enslaving natives and executing natives and colonists without authority. He was stripped of his noble titles and properties, but allowed to lead a smaller expedition back to the Caribbean, where he died after failing to rebuild his fortune.
Defenders say he brought European civilization to the Americas, took pioneering steps to protect Native Americans, and was falsely slandered by ambitious rivals.
In a note sent Monday morning to Italian American lawyers, business owners, the Italian consul (a diplomat) in the city, officials of the Knights of Columbus, and others, Philadelphia lawyer Robert F. Petrone cheered Bochetto’s effort. Petrone also defended Columbus’ record against his critics in detail.