These Italian Americans want Philly’s Chris Columbus statues taken down

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)

We are Philadelphian Italian Americans, and, this week, we were proud to honor the first Indigenous Peoples Day recognized by the City of Philadelphia. We honor this land, Lenapehoking, and we pay respect to the Lenni Lenape who have lived here for thousands of years. We amplify calls to end Columbus Day and the Columbus Day Parade, and for the removal of all statues, monuments, street and place names glorifying Columbus. We stand in solidarity with Indigenous 215 and Indigenous Peoples Day Philly who have been honoring Indigenous Peoples Day and demanding the end of all celebrations of Columbus.

For the last century, our Italian American community has been invoked to justify celebrating the legacy of Columbus. Historical records establish that he was a man who committed acts of genocidal brutality against Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, considered appalling by even his contemporaries. We are part of a growing number of Italian Americans who reject Columbus and say collectively, “Not in our name.” As members of the Philadelphia Radical Italian Network, we are a small part of that movement, standing alongside other Italian Americans in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, New York, and many other places.

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This year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. We support this action, and we want to see this done at the state and federal levels. After Kenney’s announcement, a lawsuit was filed against the city by several groups and individuals who claimed to speak for the Italian American community, including Councilmember Mark Squilla, the 1492 Society, and the Conference of Presidents of Italian American Organizations. These organizations do not speak for the entire Italian American community.

In 2020, the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza became a flashpoint in South Philadelphia. As calls to take down the statue grew louder, some people came out to violently defend this monument. Members of our organization and other groups went to Marconi Plaza to peacefully protest the statue and were met with violent assaults, bear mace, and police violence. The city eventually decided to cover the statue. In August of 2020, the Philadelphia Arts Commission voted 10-2 to remove the statue and place it in storage. However, a lawsuit opposing its removal was brought by Friends of Marconi Plaza and on Friday, October 8, 2021 a judge ordered Philadelphia to uncover the statue. We reject this order and call for immediate removal of the statue.

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Italian Americans have a crucial role in speaking out against the myth that we all support Columbus, or that his symbols and monuments honor us. Most Italians did not migrate to the Americas until hundreds of years after Columbus, but we acknowledge that our ancestors who came here were settlers on Indigenous lands and assimilated into a white supremacist power structure. Many people in our wider community feel that Columbus Day honors histories of anti-Italian discrimination in the U.S. However, Columbus was not chosen to represent Italian Americans because he reminds us of our past. He was chosen because he puts Italians in a position of power and domination in the narrative of colonial conquest. We don’t need a genocidal colonist to feel pride in our heritage. We can find other ways to honor our immigrant ancestors who came here and built communities, raised families, and survived against incredible odds. It is our duty to continue the struggles of our ancestors and fight against racial hierarchy and oppression.

Torren Melone is an Italian American resident of Philadelphia and member of the Philadelphia Radical Italian Network.

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