Box around Christopher Columbus statue in Philly must be removed, court rules

Jesse Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — The plywood box enclosing the statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Park must be removed by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled Friday.

It’s the latest development in the lengthy battle over the statue. It became a flash point and was covered with plywood amid racial justice protests in June 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Then the Historical Commission voted to remove the statue, and the legal fight began. Italian American groups have fought to preserve the statue.

According to Friday’s ruling, the city of Philadelphia is directed to remove the plywood structure, reversing a 2021 decision that allowed the city to keep the box standing. Commonwealth President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt handed down Friday’s decision.

3-year-old boy among three injured in York City shooting

GOP sues over special elections in Pa. House majority battle

Police keep watch over the the Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia on Oct. 7, 2022. The statue remains hidden by a plywood box while its fate is decided in the courts, but the box has now been painted with the colors of the Italian flag. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

The city has sought the statue’s removal during the two-year legal battle, with the group Friends of Marconi Plaza seeking to preserve it. Since October, the box has been painted green, white and red, the colors of the Italian flag.

“We are very disappointed in the court’s ruling,” said Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for the city. “We continue to believe that the Christopher Columbus statue, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current position at Marconi Plaza.”

The city is “working to comply” with the court’s order, Lessard said, including the unboxing of the statue. However, the city will continue to review the ruling.

“While we will respect this decision, we will also continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds,” Lessard said.

George Bochetto, the attorney representing Friends of Marconi Plaza, said he was “delighted” with the court’s order, calling it an “authoritative opinion on many, many levels.”

“It really represents, almost a landmark decision, frankly,” Bochetto said. “This is just so significant. And it’s not just significant for the Columbus statue and Italian Americans, it’s significant for every ethnic group in this country.”

Rich Cedrone, president of Friends of Marconi Plaza, said he was “very pleased,” describing the appeals process as a “long, hard battle.”

“I just want to stress that we, as a group, felt we would do this the right way, go through all the legal processes,” Cedrone said. “And I think we have.”

Cedrone added, “This is America, and that’s the way you do things.”

Italian American groups have defended the statue as a symbol of their heritage, including its role in Columbus Day celebrations and the explorer’s reputation for discovering America. However, historians say Columbus never set foot on the mainland United States, and have documented his enslavement and sexual abuse of Indigenous peoples.

Mabel Negrete, executive director of Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly Inc., said the statue’s supporters are unaware of the harm that the figure causes, and that it misrepresents history.

“It’s utterly insulting, to be honest,” Negrete said, citing Columbus’ involvement with colonialism and the removal of native peoples.

Of the reaction from the region’s Indigenous community, Negrete said members were “fed up” with the controversy surrounding the statue.

“It’s tiring, because we’re talking about a community that is very in the minority,” Negrete said. “Unfortunately, the Italian Americans that are pro-Columbus do not see the role they play, from the 1800s to this day, in the propaganda to remove Native Americans within the United States. This is a propaganda of proliferation within the country.”

Should the city uncover the Broad Street Columbus, it will join the uncovered Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing. In September 2021, chalkboard panels that had lined the base of the monument since 2020 were removed after a lawsuit. The boards, placed there by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., were available for people to express themselves during the nation’s reckoning on race and police violence. However, a group that constructed the monument — also represented by Bochetto — sued, and the two parties settled.

Philadelphia did succeed in removing a statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo after it became a target amid the June 2020 protests against police brutality. The statue was stripped from its position across from City Hall overnight, with Mayor Jim Kenney citing Rizzo’s “racism, bigotry, and police brutality for members of the Black community, (and) the LGBTQ community” as reasons for its removal.