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Bill to rename Columbus Obelisk in Northeast Baltimore for police victims heads to City Council after debate

People gathered last month for "West Wednesday" near the Columbus Obelisk. Tawanda Jones led the 361st consecutive meeting as they continued to call for justice for her brother, Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013. Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey has proposed renaming the statue the “Victims of Police Violence Monument."
People gathered last month for "West Wednesday" near the Columbus Obelisk. Tawanda Jones led the 361st consecutive meeting as they continued to call for justice for her brother, Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013. Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey has proposed renaming the statue the “Victims of Police Violence Monument." (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Legislation that would rename the Columbus Obelisk monument to honor victims of police brutality is heading to the Baltimore City Council after it was unanimously approved by the city’s Housing and Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

The committee, sans councilmen Bill Henry and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, voted 5-0 to approve the bill, which would rename the monument in the Heinz Park section of Herring Run Park in Arcadia in Northeast Baltimore to honor the victims of police brutality. The bill now moves to the full council for a second reading.

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Proposed by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the bill comes as cities across the country have reexamined their monuments to the Genoese explorer, with Philadelphia becoming the latest city to vote to remove Christopher Columbus’ visage from a public plaza.

Tuesday’s meeting mirrored the debate that has been raging on in the city since a different statue of Columbus was dragged from Little Italy into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on July 4.

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Dorsey said his mother’s family are Italian immigrants and that the bill is “not an attack on Italians,” but that the city “helping to right the ship that has been steered by white supremacy as a system for our country’s entire history.”

Equating the “mythology and heroism” of some memorialized Confederate soldiers and Columbus, Dorsey said, “Monuments to these causes continue to do harm by inserting into our lives, into our communities, representations of narratives that have been harmful to people and do not tell the truth about how our lives … have developed over time.”

Several people who said their relatives were either brutalized or unnecessarily killed by police also spoke in support of renaming the monument.

The bill was supported by Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a 44-year-old man who died July 18, 2013, during a traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore.

West died after he was punched, beaten with batons and restrained by police, but no officers were charged in his death and an independent review panel found that while the officers “potentially aggravated the situation” and did not follow basic policies, they ultimately did not use excessive force.

She said she viewed the renamed monument as a “sacred place” that “would mean the world, not just to me, but to all of the victims’ families,” adding that she did not have a place to honor West’s life after his death.

“I had to go back to the actual place where my brother was murdered,” Jones said.

Darlene Cain, whose son Dale Graham was fatally shot by police at an East Baltimore house in 2012, also spoke in favor of the name change. Cain has questioned the police’s account of the shooting, saying she’d heard that her son was unarmed and did not make an aggressive move toward the officers before they opened fire.

She said Graham’s daughters are now in high school and college and the family is “so thankful and respectful to the fact of being acknowledged.”

A number of Italian Americans spoke against the bill, all saying they’d support a separate monument, but not for the obelisk to be renamed.

Nicolino Applauso, secretary of the Board of Governors of the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland, said the monument represents “very important historical value,” pointing to its creation in 1792.

He said Italians also looked to the explorer as a source of inspiration and hope, such as during the lynchings of 11 Italian American men in New Orleans in 1891.

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“If you replace something with something else, there will always be resentment from some other part of the community,” Applauso said.

He and others also challenged the accepted history of Columbus.

Applauso said, “We don’t have any direct source of Columbus'” acts, adding “his diary was lost.”

Andre DiMino, the communications director for Italian American One Voice Coalition, said he would “direct people to look at readable sources” and that the current narrative “is completely overblown.”

Paul Kropfeld, a board member on the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland, said those in attendance should get “accurate historic documentation about Columbus” and that the current narrative is “going to be challenged because of what’s happening across the country.”

In addition, historians found a report from Francisco de Bobadilla, who replaced Columbus as the governor of the Indies, that includes the testimonies of 23 people who said they’d either seen or witnessed the native people being treated violently by Columbus and his brother, Bartolomé.

As the number of people who challenged the accepted narrative of Columbus’ past continued to grow, Councilman John Bullock interrupted Applauso to make the point that not all of history comes directly from its primary source.

“We can look at just the history. We can look at the evidence of what happened in some of these areas,” he said.

Deborah Tempera, a Fells Point resident, said she found the bill “very divisive and inciting,” and said the council has not yet conducted a poll of city residents as Philadelphia did before removing its statue.

City resident Megan Kenny spoke in support of the bill and put the onus back on those speaking out against it to take action if they were going to speak against this one.

“What steps are you taking to honor those who have been killed by police?” Kenny asked. “All I’m hearing is how the renaming of this monument is disrespectful to the Italian community.”

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“Instead of crying about this being taken away from you, what are you doing to replace? To give?” she added.

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Applauso was the last person to speak against the bill before the council’s discussion, and responded by also placing that responsibility on the council, saying that the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department happened under council’s watch.

Ultimately, the legislation was moved to the council with an amendment so as to name it the “Victims of Police Violence Monument” if passed, changing it from the “Police Violence Victims Monument,” which some members said placed the focus more on police than on victims.

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