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Removal Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus statue stirs emotions, from horror to glee

Italian-American community reacts to protesters dumping the Columbua statue in the Inner Harbor after pulling it down from its base at Columbus Piazza.

After protesters heaved a marble statue of Christopher Columbus into Baltimore’s Jones Falls Saturday night, consigning it to a resting place amid polluted muck and trash, the reactions ranged from horror to glee.

“Bye,” was the one-word tweet from Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who has been calling to rename another Columbus memorial in the city.

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Some joked online that Columbus finally discovered a new place.

But others were dismayed with the toppling of the statue of the Italian explorer, which stood at the Christopher Columbus Piazza on the border of Baltimore’s Little Italy and Harbor East neighborhoods since 1984.

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement condemning the actions. He did not say whether the Columbus statue should stay or go, only that destroying it wasn’t appropriate.

“While we welcome peaceful protests and constructive dialogue on whether and how to put certain monuments in context or move them to museums through a legal process, lawlessness, vandalism, and destruction of property is completely unacceptable,” the Republican governor posted on his social media accounts Sunday morning. “That is the antithesis of democracy and should be condemned by everyone, regardless of their politics.”

Hogan later revised the statement to add a veiled criticism of Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young: “Baltimore City leaders need to regain control of their own streets and immediately start making them safer.”

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, dismissed the governor’s statement.

“The governor has made a practice out of engaging in hot rhetoric that we largely ignore because it’s not productive and not helpful,” Davis said.

Davis said Hogan is pandering to his political base. “We let him get it out of his system and we just focus on doing what’s best for the people of Baltimore,” he said.

A group of people filled the piazza late on Independence Day, toppled the statue and unceremoniously rolled it into the murky Inner Harbor tributary nearby, according to videos posted online.

The grassroots activist group Baltimore BLOC posted a tweet directed to the mayor on June 21, saying 72 hours was enough time for the city to take down the Columbus monuments.

“Can’t guarantee they’ll still be standing after that,” the group wrote.

Protesters pulled down the Christopher Columbus statue near Little Italy and pushed it into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on July 4, 2020. Video by Spencer Compton

In a Sunday statement to The Baltimore Sun, the group wrote: “We salute our kinfolk who toppled and deported the Columbus monument, and we reaffirm the demands that the organizers are calling for moving forward. Symbols and systems of white supremacy have no place in Baltimore City and must be collectively dismantled.”

Baltimore BLOC then listed 10 demands, including the removal of all statues that honor “white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide and colonizers.” The group also seeks a redesign of the state flag, which uses a symbol that had been adopted by Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War.

The Columbus statue was taken down just hours after President Donald Trump delivered an Independence Day speech in which he railed against those who he said aim to divide the nation.

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“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms,” said the Republican president, according to a White House transcript.

Del. Kathy Szeliga called watching the video of the Columbus monument’s destruction “heartbreaking.”

She was among elected officials and Italian-Americans who gathered at the statue late last month to urge city and state leaders to protect the statue, fearing it would be destroyed.

Szeliga, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said she understands that people have differing views on Columbus. She had hoped there could be a public discussion about the statue’s fate, such as whether to move it.

Instead, she accused Young and city leaders of purposefully ignoring the threats to the statue and tacitly approving its destruction.

“They turned a blind eye while mobs tore down this statute,” Szeliga said.

Del. Nino Mangione, a Baltimore County Republican of Italian ancestry, said his phone lit up with text messages about the statue Saturday night.

“I am just sick and tired of Baltimore really looking like it’s some third-rate horror movie because of the absolute inaction of an irresponsible few in leadership,” Mangione said. “I just couldn’t believe watching that video. It really disgraces all of Baltimore.”

Mangione said he supported keeping the Columbus statue in place, and noted his relatives were among those who contributed money to build the statue, dedicated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“I would have loved to have seen it where it is. You can always have history and discuss the pros and cons of the individual — the great achievements and the downsides,” he said.

Many Americans were incorrectly taught that Columbus “discovered” what is now the United States of America in the 15th century, even though he explored the Caribbean islands and Central America, but not the mainland of what is now the U.S. More recently, his legacy has been scrutinized due to his violent acts and enslavement of native people.

On Sunday morning, the curious were drawn to the piazza to see where the statute met its demise. Some photographed the scene, while others scooped up bits of marble left behind.

John Pica, a former state senator who now works as a lobbyist, said activists had been researching whether they could raise money and arrange to move the statue themselves. But they ran out of time.

“We knew something ultimately would happen,” Pica said.

Pica said privately-funded security guards were at the piazza Saturday night and called police, but that officers did not intervene as the statue was destroyed.

Baltimore Police said there have been no arrests but did not offer any further information about the incident Sunday morning. The department did not answer questions about officers’ actions.

Pica said plans are in the works to hoist the statue’s remains from the water in the coming days and take it to private property to be restored. On Sunday, he and others tried to pull part of it out of the water using a rope that was still attached from the night before.

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Pica thinks some who disparage Columbus may not know that Italians were lynched and discriminated against for generations in the United States. Pica suggested that Columbus may not be responsible for all of the atrocities attributed to him.

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“He’s getting blamed for things that have never actually been documented,” he said.

This statue is the latest Columbus monument to be damaged or destroyed as the nation re-examines its past heroes, including those who enslaved others or supported the Confederacy.

A Columbus statue in Richmond, Va., met a similar fate as the one in Baltimore: It was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake last month, according to reports.

Baltimore City has two other monuments dedicated to Columbus, a statue in Druid Hill Park and a 44-foot-tall obelisk near Herring Run Park. Neither had suffered any damage by Sunday morning, according to police.

The obelisk, however, has been targeted before. In 2017, a video was posted online of a man taking a sledgehammer to its base while another person held a sign reading: “Racism, tear it down.”

Dorsey, the councilman, put forward a bill to rename the Columbus obelisk in honor of victims of police violence. The bill hasn’t yet received a hearing before the council.

Baltimore Sun photojournalist Amy Davis contributed to this article.

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