Philadelphia City Councilmember Mark Squilla and dozens of Italian American groups sued Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration in federal court Tuesday for changing the name of the city’s Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
“While both groups’ ethnicity deserve recognition, Mayor Kenney may not take action that discriminates against Italian Americans to exalt another ethnic group in its place,” said the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
The suit accuses Kenney, a South Philadelphia native of Irish descent, of a broad pattern of discrimination against his Italian American constituents and asks the court to declare Italian Americans a protected class. In addition to Kenney’s executive order renaming the October holiday, the suit cites last year’s removal of the statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo outside the Municipal Services Building after it became a target for protests against police brutality.
The plaintiffs, including Squilla, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, and the group that plans the city’s Columbus Day parade, also cited Philadelphia’s efforts to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza. After the Rizzo statue was removed, defenders of Columbus gathered at the plaza, which in turn drew protesters. The groups clashed for days before the city encased the statue in plywood and announced plans to seek to remove it through a still-ongoing process with the city’s Art Commission.
The lawsuit contends the city discriminated against Italian Americans by not including South Philadelphia’s 19148 zip code in its list of prioritized neighborhoods for coronavirus vaccine distribution. The city has said it prioritized vaccine outreach to areas and demographic groups with low vaccination rates, and there is no evidence the Kenney administration intentionally excluded Italian Americans.
“The canceling of Columbus Day is the most recent — but probably not the last — act in a long line of divisive, anti-Italian American discriminatory actions taken by Mayor Kenney during his Administration,” the suit said. It asks the court to void Kenney’s executive order, declare Italian Americans “a protected class entitled to Equal Protection under the U.S. Constitution,” and have the city pay plaintiffs’ attorneys fees.
In a statement, Kenney said the suit is “a patently meritless political ploy and will waste precious resources at a time when we are trying to both deal with a devastating pandemic and work to build a safer and more equitable City for all residents.”
Squilla, who represents the eastern half of South Philadelphia and parts of Center City, is the only Italian American who holds a city elected office. Fifteen years ago, Council included Frank DiCicco, Rick Mariano, and Frank L. Rizzo Jr., the late mayor’s son, and was led by Council President Anna C. Verna.
Irish families settled in South Philadelphia in large numbers starting in the mid-19th century and were joined by many Italian families by the early 20th century. Although both groups were overwhelmingly Catholic, neighborhood tensions often played out along ethnic lines, a dynamic that still lingers for some longtime residents.
In recent years, dozens of cities across the country have changed the holiday’s official name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, citing Columbus’ racist views and the start of the genocide of Native Americans that began with his 1492 journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Squilla said he supported the suit because he doesn’t believe Kenney followed proper procedure for changing city holidays. Kenney’s executive order can be undone by future mayors. The administration said in January it plans to make the change permanent through contracts with the city’s major unions, negotiations for which are ongoing.
Whether Columbus should be remembered as a hero or villain is a matter of debate that is separate from Kenney’s handling of the name change, Squilla said.
“Even if you don’t agree with whether Columbus was a genocidal maniac who started the slave trade or whether he was the first civil rights leader who came to the new world, there still should be a process,” Squilla said.
Squilla said some historians believe Columbus was kind to native populations he encountered in the Caribbean. Records from Columbus’ journey and accounts from his own officers, however, paint a picture of merciless colonialism and subjugation. Columbus himself acknowledged in a letter that 9- and 10-year-old girls were enslaved.
Kenney said earlier this year that his order renaming Columbus Day, which also recognized the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, 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.”