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Philadelphia announces plans to remove Columbus statue after repeated violence at Marconi Plaza

The move comes a day after statue supporters brawled with protesters at the statue.

A worker takes a measurement as they prepare to box the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 16, 2020.
A worker takes a measurement as they prepare to box the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 16, 2020.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia city officials on Wednesday announced they intend to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza, which has repeatedly attracted armed groups accused of assaulting protesters and passersby amid a national reckoning over monuments to controversial figures.

Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Wednesday the city will ask the Art Commission on July 22 to approve the statue’s removal “in light of ongoing public safety concerns about the presence of armed individuals at Marconi Plaza.” The move came less than 24 hours after the most recent incident, in which a group of armed white South Philadelphians provoked a brawl with protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

A spokesperson for the mayor said the decision was intended as a first step toward healing, adding: “The mayor respects the liberties of people with opposing viewpoints to assemble and exercise their First Amendment rights.”

She said the mayor takes reports of assault “very seriously,” including the physical confrontation Tuesday that resulted in four arrests, including a man charged after video showed him hurling racial slurs at a Black photographer and punching him in the jaw.

District Attorney Larry Krasner on Wednesday criticized the police response, saying, “It is the role of government to be even-handed in trying to prevent violence on both sides and not to favor people who perhaps make Frank Rizzo’s acolytes feel comfortable,” a reference to the former mayor and police commissioner.

The Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza has been boxed up since last week, when city officials announced they would open a public dialogue about what to do with the structure. Individuals may testify to the Art Commission, which is appointed by the mayor, at its meeting on July 22. Residents can submit their thoughts via an online form that will be open through July 21. It’s not clear when the commission will decide.

The announcement comes as the nation grapples with commemorations to controversial figures, including in St. Paul, Minn., where earlier this month protesters dismantled a Columbus statue while demonstrating against the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police officers in May in Minneapolis. Those defending the statue in South Philly say it celebrates Italian American heritage. Those against it say it’s a painful reminder of atrocities against Indigenous people directed by Columbus.

Donna Fann-Boyle, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent and led an effort asking the Neshaminy School District to change its mascot, said the Columbus statue represented “a total denial of the terrorism that he caused.”

“We’ve been trying to get this issue taken care of for years,” she said, “and it’s really sad that it had to take George Floyd for all this stuff to come to light.”

Some supporters of the statue have repeatedly milled around the public plaza carrying weapons, claiming they were defending it from vandals. Observers said members of the group physically attacked people in mid-June, and a group Tuesday night brawled with protesters who marched to the plaza after a demonstration “against racist vigilantes and their cop allies.”

John Mooney, 58, was charged with ethnic intimidation, simple assault, reckless endangerment, and harassment for allegedly attacking Mel D. Cole, a Black hip-hop photographer. Police immediately arrested Mooney, however, Cole, recovering from the punch, was initially unsure whether an arrest had been made. He said he spent 10 minutes trying unsuccessfully to get a police officer to take a report, and later made a report at a nearby police district.

In a statement Wednesday, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that, if that’s the case, it would “be highly reasonable and understandable for the victim to feel under-served by the officers to whom he attempted to make the report.”

Officials haven’t named other individuals arrested Tuesday.

Mooney is one of at least three who have been charged with assault at Marconi Plaza this month. Louis Paolino, 51, of South Philadelphia, and T.J. Cahill, 51, of Northeast Philadelphia, were arrested June 16 on charges including harassment and simple assault.

Protesters and their supporters have slammed police for what they see as a too-lax response to the armed crowds.

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

During a demonstration to defund the police Tuesday, speakers included Nikil Saval, a progressive Democrat who last month won the party’s nomination to represent the 1st Senatorial District, which includes Marconi Plaza. He said crowds supporting the statue defended a “delusional explorer” and a “genocidal maniac.”

Supporters of the statue said their fight isn’t over. In mid-June, a group of Italian American residents represented by attorney George Bochetto sought a court order to bar the city from removing the statue. The city said it would go through the Art Commission approval process.

» READ MORE: The fight over South Philly’s Christopher Columbus statue has gone to court: ‘It’s not mob rule’

But Bochetto said Wednesday: “The mayor knows me better than to simply allow this issue to go to some kangaroo commission.” He said he is “researching all options including federal jurisdiction.”

The statue has been at Marconi Plaza at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue since 1976. Previously, it stood in Fairmount Park.

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

If removed, it would be the second taken down by the city since the national uprising following Floyd’s death.

City officials in early June removed a statue of Rizzo from in front of the Municipal Services Building. The statue has been controversial since it was erected in 1999 — while many white Philadelphians hailed Rizzo as a “law and order” type, his tenure was marked by unchecked police brutality.

» READ MORE: ‘My eyes feel at peace now’: Frank Rizzo mural is erased, as calls for racial justice bring change to Philly’s Italian Market

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation also is reconsidering a Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing. Crews last week covered the base of the monument and asked Philadelphians to write in chalk their “hopes for the future of Philadelphia.” Suggestions included “no racism,” “equality and solidarity,” and “real brotherly love.”

Staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this article.