Joe Laino, 71, stood near the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza on Saturday while leaning on a baseball bat.
A woman nearby held up a sign saying “Stand Up, South Philly Won’t Stand Down."
And another man, who declined to give his name, stood close to the statue while holding a rifle — one of at least two men in the plaza carrying guns.
Thomas Easterday, 50, was among the crowd of about 100 people milling around the marble Columbus figure. He said the goal of the gathering was simple.
“Protecting the statue from these rioters who want to take it down,” he said.
The scene came as Philadelphia and the country reckon with long-standing issues including police brutality, racism, and discrimination in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Easterday and others said their presence Saturday was as much to ward off any vandals as to send a message to Mayor Jim Kenney that they would not approve of removing the statue in the middle of the night — as Kenney did with the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo earlier this month.
By day’s end, the gathering had not resulted in any destruction or violence, and though tensions flared at times, the scene was largely calm. It may have been triggered, at least in part, by a social media dustup.
West Passyunk resident James Gitto, 29, said that he sent several tweets this week calling for the removal of Christopher Columbus tributes across the city, and that the tweets were apparently shared on Facebook by Philadelphians proud of the Italian explorer.
By midnight Friday, Gitto said, “my phone started going off” with notifications — people sending him expletive-laden emails, telling him they were “watching” him, calling him a “snowflake” on Twitter, and writing negative reviews of his dog-grooming business on Yelp.
Those present at Saturday’s demonstrations said that they considered Columbus an emblem of their heritage and that any attempt to erase him would be a “hate crime.”
“It would be over my dead body before they got to this statue,” said Anthony Ruggiero, 41, wearing an Italia jersey. “This is a part of history.”
However the episode was sparked, it was another example of the contentious debate over those the city should choose to honor.
Columbus has been the subject of such discussions before.
Last year, Native American-rights activists interrupted a groundbreaking ceremony at South Philadelphia’s Columbus Square, calling the park’s namesake a killer and an enslaver. One man held a sign up in front of City Councilmember Mark Squilla as he sought to address the crowd.
“Columbus didn’t discover the Americas,” the sign said. “He invaded it.”
Though historians note that Columbus never set foot in North America, he has long been cited as the person who helped open a new continent to European settlement.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1937, and President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 permanently set the observance on the second Monday in October.
In Philadelphia, a city of deep Italian heritage, Columbus is celebrated with an annual holiday parade.
But resistance to Columbus has grown over the last several decades, and some cities and states have dropped the date recognizing him in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day. Many Native Americans contend that his arrival marked the start of a genocide, and historians have said that his diaries and letters, along with those who traveled with him, show he seized land, enslaved natives, cut off hands and heads, and sold girls to become sex slaves.
His statue has been removed in recent weeks in cities including Camden, Richmond, Va., and St. Paul, Minn., as demonstrations over Floyd’s death have caused reflection on other aspects of the country’s history.
At Marconi Plaza on Saturday, some attendees — who were largely male, white, and not wearing masks — called protesters “animals” or “thugs.” Others were more sympathetic but said they were out of patience with the violence or looting.
Joseph Pungitore, 38, draped in an Italian flag, said he lives nearby and has been frequently checking on the statue in light of the push to remove monuments connected to histories of oppression.
He planned to stick around until he has to go to work Monday if necessary. His son stood nearby, leaning on a baseball bat, but Pungitore clarified: “I’m standing for peace.”
Staff photographer Tim Tai and staff writers Jeff Gammage and Anna Orso contributed to this article.