Higher court orders Columbus statue on Marconi Plaza to stay covered for now

Workers box up the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

File photo: Workers box up the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: Sunday, Oct. 10, 9 a.m.

The Commonwealth Court has ordered the plywood box encasing the Christopher Columbus statue on Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia to stay in place for now.

The court issued the decision late Saturday, which vacated an emergency order from a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge signed earlier in the day, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. That order allowed supporters of the statue to “immediately engage a contractor” to remove the box that has covered the monument since last summer’s demonstrations against racial injustice.

The order followed a Friday ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick that the City of Philadelphia must remove the box covering the 144-year-old statue of the Italian explorer, which became a flashpoint during last year’s nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice. The city had appealed that ruling.

 

Saturday afternoon, the Inquirer quoted George Bochetto, the attorney representing the statue’s supporters, as saying that he had a crew on standby, adding that the box could be removed “if not tonight, first thing tomorrow morning.”

In a statement to the press earlier, Bochetto had vowed that the statue would be visible by the time a scheduled Sunday Columbus Day Parade concludes at Marconi Plaza.

On Friday, the Inquirer reported, Kenney administration spokesman Kevin Lessard said that the statue should remain boxed up “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians,” and that any destruction of public property would be a crime.

In her order Friday, Judge Patrick had said the city could erect a clear structure to protect the monument but must remove the plywood.

Now, the plywood will stay after the city successfully appealed Patrick’s ruling to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that removing the box during the holiday weekend would again pose a risk to public safety.

In Philadelphia, a city with a deep Italian heritage, supporters say they consider Columbus an emblem of that heritage. Mayor Jim Kenney said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.

Kenney earlier signed an executive order changing the name of the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first city holiday under the new name.

After the unrest following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year, Kenney characterized removing the statue as a matter of public safety. Judge Patrick, however, wrote that the city had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public, calling the confrontations “isolated civil unrest.”

The judge ruled in August that the statue could remain in the plaza, calling the decision to remove it “baffling” and unsupported by law and based on insufficient evidence. The ruling overturned a decision by a city licensing board that upheld a July 2020 decision by the city historical commission to remove the statue.

Associated Press contributed material to this article.

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