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The Christopher Columbus statue: Why it’s an issue right now

Why has this statue come under scrutiny? It's part of the reckoning of who we choose to honor.

Workers box up the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on Tuesday.
Workers box up the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on Tuesday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

At Marconi Plaza, at Broad and Oregon Streets in South Philadelphia, a conflict has been unfolding for days about a statue of Christopher Columbus, with hundreds of demonstrators and counterprotesters.

The statue, which gazes over Broad, has been in Philadelphia since the 1876 Centennial Exposition and in its current place in Marconi Plaza since 1976, where it serves as the ending point for the annual Columbus Day parade in South Philadelphia.

So what does Columbus have to do with protests about police brutality? Here is what you need to know.

Why is Columbus an issue now?

The current conflict over the statue has come amid the third week of national and local protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But what does police brutality have to do with Columbus? They are linked because of the broader nationwide reckoning about the legacy of racism in this country.

Part of that reckoning is a spotlight on what figures we choose to honor.

Resistance to celebrating Columbus specifically has grown in recent years, with some cities dropping Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day. Many point out that Columbus’ arrival signaled the beginning of a genocide against Native Americans, where he enslaved, brutalized, and killed thousands of people, according to both his own diaries and letters, and those of people with whom he traveled, historians have said.

This is not the first time that Columbus has become a problematic figure in Philadelphia. Last year, for example, Native American rights activists protested a groundbreaking ceremony at Columbus Square in South Philadelphia, saying the park’s namesake was a killer and enslaver who did not deserve the honor.

In 2018, the Columbus monument in Marconi Plaza was defaced with graffiti that read, “end Columbus Day,” “genocide,” “stolen land,” and “Italian Americans against racism.”

“A murderer is a murderer,” Priscilla Bell, who is of Taíno ancestry and also a cofounder of the Indigenous 215 group, told The Inquirer in 2017. “You have this guy who was respected as a hero all these years, and it’s very much a myth.”

» READ MORE: Protest observers say police allowed South Philly Columbus ‘defenders’ to assault them

What’s happened in the past week?

Two weeks ago, the city removed the controversial monument of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo from Thomas Paine Plaza in Center City.

Crowds began gathering around the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on Saturday, with some residents of South Philadelphia, which has historically had strong Italian roots. Throughout the weekend, some had weapons: rifles, baseball bats, and golf clubs.

Some demonstrators said they believed protesters hoped to tear the statue down. Others said that they consider Columbus an emblem of their heritage, and that the figure’s erasure from history would be a “hate crime” against Italians and Italian Americans.

Some fights broke out between demonstrators and counterprotesters, prompting police intervention, though some observers said police allowed the pro-Columbus demonstrators to assault counterprotesters.

In the days since the confrontations began, the commanding officer of a police district that covers the area that includes Marconi Plaza has been transferred to another assignment, though a police spokesperson told The Inquirer that the change was not related to the conflict.

» READ MORE: After three days of conflict at the Christopher Columbus statue, a South Philly police captain was transferred

Mayor Jim Kenney initially addressed the situation online on Sunday, writing on Twitter that the city was “aware of groups of armed individuals ‘protecting’ the Columbus statue” and that “all vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city.” Kenney added that the city was investigating an alleged assault that occurred near the statue over the weekend.

Will Philly remove the Columbus statue?

On Monday, Kenney issued a statement saying a “boxing apparatus” would be installed around the statue to preserve it — and the box went up on Tuesday. Kenney also called for the Art Commission to review “the statue, its location, and its appropriateness in a public park,” and told “South Philadelphians attempting to protect the statue to stand down.”

“I believe that a public process will allow for all viewpoints — especially those of indigenous people whose ancestors suffered under the rule of European colonizers — to be considered,” Kenney’s statement read. “It’s also my hope that by initiating this process, the current tensions in Marconi Plaza can end.”

Supporters of the statue are trying to get an emergency injunction to block any attempt to move the monument. Attorney George Bochetto, who represents the 1492 Society, which organizes Columbus Day parades, said monuments “are in the public trust, whether you are for Columbus or against,” and the city has “deliberative panels” to decide what art should be displayed by the city.

» READ MORE: Columbus fight goes to court. ‘It’s not mob rule, or who has the biggest gun,’ says statue advocate

If the city does remove the statue, it will go through the Art Commission process, said a spokesperson for the city.

What is happening in other cities?

Over the last few weeks, statues of Columbus have been removed, pulled down, or otherwise defaced in cities across the country. Demonstrators in St. Paul, Minn., and Richmond, Va., for example, have pulled down statues of Columbus. In Boston, a statue of Columbus was beheaded and will be removed.

Other cities, such as St. Louis, Detroit, and Middletown, Conn., have also removed statues of Columbus. Locally, a Columbus statue in Chester was recently covered with a blue tarp, though it is not clear what city officials plan to do with the monument.

And last week in Camden, city workers removed a Columbus statue from Farnham Park, with the City of Camden saying in a statement that its removal was “long overdue.”

“Previously there have been requests to remove the statue as the community no longer supports the monument,” the city’s statement read. “We must now establish a plan to reexamine these outdated symbols of racial division and injustices.”