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For second day, group ‘protects’ Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia; mayor denounces ‘vigilantism’

Groups of people, some with baseball bats and metal poles, have been standing by the statue since Saturday.

A group of pro-Columbus supporters (background) and anti-Columbus supporters (foreground) gather in front of the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on Sunday.
A group of pro-Columbus supporters (background) and anti-Columbus supporters (foreground) gather in front of the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on Sunday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Vigilantes, some carrying baseball bats and metal poles, stood guard Sunday at the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia for a second day, saying they were protecting the sculpture amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

“If they bring this down, where does it end?” one man shouted. “Next they’ll want to change the American flag.”

Scuffles broke out between the South Philadelphians and counter-protesters who arrived at Marconi Plaza, forcing police to intervene, and officers remained at the scene as the crowd at one point grew to 100.

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Streets near the Broad Street and Oregon Avenue park were lined with police SUVs and other vehicles, and the bats and poles disappeared as the police presence grew. Officers moved in, set up barriers around the statue, then formed a blue line between the two opposing groups, who cursed and shouted at one another. The counter-demonstrators numbered a few dozen.

Around 9:40 p.m., Deputy Police Commissioner Dennis Wilson, accompanied by Councilmember Mark Squilla, told the crowd, “The statue will not be removed." He said that police would remain all night and that the crowd would have to leave. However, community activist Anthony Giordano, 49, who had been negotiating with police, said the group would be allowed to stay as long as they remained orderly.

“We don’t want our neighborhood destroyed,” said a woman who would identify herself only as Gina. “This is not about black vs. white. This is about good vs. evil. We don’t promote violence. We promote peaceful protest. We don’t want to see what happened in other neighborhoods happen here.”

The conflict comes amid the third weekend of local and national protests over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police — and as monuments to the Italian explorer have been removed in Camden, Wilmington, and other cities.

Historical examinations reveal Columbus to have enslaved and killed thousands of indigenous people during four trips to the Caribbean islands, the modern impetus for calls to end the honorifics and holiday that bear his name. But that hits hard and meets resistance in cities such as Philadelphia, a place of rich Italian culture, cuisine and heritage, where the annual Columbus Day parade draws thousands.

At Penn’s Landing, a 125-foot obelisk was erected in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage. The same year, City Council renamed part of Delaware Avenue as Columbus Boulevard.

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The dispute over the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza occurs two weeks after the city unceremoniously removed the controversial statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, perhaps Philadelphia’s best-known Italian American, who was criticized for his aggressive tactics toward the black and gay communities.

In many quarters, Columbus is no longer the hero who, as the school rhyme goes, sailed the ocean blue in 1492, discovering America and opening a new world to settlement. Historians say Columbus never actually set foot on the mainland of North America.

His diaries and letters, and those of men in his expeditions, describe how he seized land, enslaved natives to dig for gold, cut off hands and heads, sold girls as young as 9 as sex slaves, and rewarded his men with females to rape. Native peoples say Columbus was an invader, not a discoverer, and his arrival heralded the coming of a genocide that would go on for centuries.

The United States has been embroiled in a volatile, sometimes violent debate over who should be honored and why, one that has centered on the removal of Confederate monuments but spread to include other historical memorials and accolades.

“We are aware of the groups of armed individuals ‘protecting’ the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza,” Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted early Sunday. “All vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city.”

Kenney said the city was investigating an apparent assault that was caught on video as well as restrictions placed on journalists.

The left-wing, nonprofit news organization Unicorn Riot said several men assaulted one of its reporters and slashed his bicycle tires at the scene on Saturday.

“Philadelphia police then threatened our reporter with arrest for ‘inciting a riot,’” and told the reporter to leave, according to a statement on the Unicorn Riot website.

On Sunday afternoon, Philadelphia police said they knew of the incident and were investigating. That came the day after about 100 people congregated at the site, including at least two men carrying rifles, saying they were there to protect the statue from “rioters.”

A mayoral spokesperson said Sunday evening that “Philadelphia police have been working to maintain order as the different protest groups exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Protesters supporting the larger movement to end police brutality and racism have defaced or removed Columbus statues in Houston and San Francisco. Saturday passed largely as a day of peaceful protests in Philadelphia, but that changed late in the night.

A crowd of about 300 smashed the windows of a police cruiser and looted an Exxon gas station in the 3100 block of North Broad Street, according to police. The crowd was dispersed shortly after midnight. In the early Sunday hours, several men allegedly attempted to blow up an ATM at the New Century restaurant in the 2500 block of Germantown Avenue, according to 6-ABC.

Marconi Plaza is an urban green named for the Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi, who won the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics as an inventor of radio. It’s a place where neighbors walk their dogs and bring their children to play.

The marble statue of Columbus that gazes over the grounds was first erected on Belmont Avenue in Fairmount Park, presented to the city by Italian American citizens as part of Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Believed to be the work of artist Emanuele Caroni, it was moved to the plaza in 1982.

On Sunday a woman wrote on Facebook that she and her friends had been harassed by a “drunken mob” that “lunged at us, circled us and threatened our lives simply for walking down the sidewalk” the previous evening.

She compared what she called the laid-back response of police to the hundreds of helmeted officers and National Guard troops who met Black Lives Matter protesters.

On Sunday, one man who had been brandishing a baseball bat eventually left, persuaded by his girlfriend that he could get into trouble, according to an officer at the scene. Another man paced the perimeter with a metal stick atop his shoulder.

People who gathered at the base of the statue said they were convinced that protesters were coming to tear down the monument. Others said they were there to protest “hate crimes against Italians” or violence against police.

The voice of Frank Sinatra, singing, “That’s Life,” blared from a car radio. Some drivers in passing cars honked their support, while others cursed at the group.

Several neighborhood residents said they believed the counter-protestors were being paid $25 an hour to antagonize them.

“They’re here to make money,” said one man, who didn’t want to give his name. “They’re all here to make money.”