Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration on Thursday said it will appeal a court ruling this week that prohibited the city from removing the statue of Christopher Columbus from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza.
The statue, which became a flash point last year during protests after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, remains sealed in a wooden box at the plaza. Supporters of the statue call it an important symbol of the city’s Italian American community, while protesters who pushed for its removal say the city shouldn’t honor Columbus due to his abuse of Indigenous people.
“The reality is that Philadelphia, this country, and the world are still in the midst of a deep reckoning with regards to the legacy of systemic racism and oppression,” Kenney said in a statement. “We respect those who feel these statues are part of history and/or their culture. However, acknowledging someone’s role in history does not mean we need to celebrate them or give them a venerated position in our public spaces, where all Philadelphians and visitors must be exposed to them and the pain that comes with it.”
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick on Tuesday ruled that the city last year didn’t follow the legally required process to remove the statue. That overturned a September decision by the city’s Board of License and Inspection Review, which green-lit a July decision by the Philadelphia Historical Commission to remove the statue.
“It is baffling to this court as to how the City of Philadelphia wants to remove the Statue without any legal basis,” Patrick wrote in her ruling. “The city’s entire argument and case is devoid of any legal foundation.”
The city’s appeal will go to Commonwealth Court, where it may have better luck than with Patrick, a Republican who generated controversy in April when she was listed as a featured speaker at a Gettysburg event that was linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Patrick said she wasn’t invited to the “Patriots Arise, Awakening the Dead!” event and didn’t plan to attend.
The debate over the Marconi Plaza statue started in June 2020. After the city removed a statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whose “tough on crime” policies protesters cast as racist, some people feared the same fate would befall the Columbus statue.
Despite there having been no significant protest at the plaza, defenders of the Columbus statue began gathering there, and some carried weapons like bats. That attracted protesters, who were then harassed and assaulted by the statue’s defenders.
Kenney’s chief of staff then began the process of seeking to remove the statue, telling the Art Commission that doing so was a matter of public safety.
In her decision, Patrick said those 2020 incidents were “isolated” and ruled that the city failed to provide evidence of an ongoing danger.
George Bochetto, a lawyer representing the Friends of Marconi Plaza, one of the plaintiffs in the case, is also representing groups suing the city over the administration’s removal of the Rizzo statue from the steps of the Municipal Services Building, as well as Kenney’s decision to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day.
“This mayor for whatever reason has it in for Italian Americans,” Bochetto said of Kenney, a South Philadelphia native of Irish ancestry. “You can’t just wake up one morning and pretend you’re a dictator or a tyrant and start discriminating against a particular ethnic group.”
Kenney has denied that he has targeted Italian Americans and said previously that his executive order renaming Columbus Day and establishing a city holiday for Juneteenth — which commemorates the end of slavery — was “an acknowledgment of the centuries of institutional racism and marginalization that have been forced upon Black Americans, Indigenous people, and other communities of color.”
Bochetto said Wednesday that he plans to ask Patrick to order that the city remove the box around the statue. Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said the city intends to keep the statue boxed as the court case continues.
“The statue remains in Marconi Plaza and will continue to be secured in its existing box,” she said.