A crowd of shouting protesters yanked down the Christopher Columbus statue near Little Italy, dragged it to the edge of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and rolled it with a splash into the water as fireworks went off around the city on the night of the Fourth of July.
Dedicated in 1984, the statue is the latest monument in the U.S. to fall this year during the national reckoning over racism and police violence that also has toppled statues of Confederate figures and enslavers around the country.
The debate drew renewed attention to Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus memorials — including one in Herring Run Park believed to be the nation’s oldest. The legacy of the 15th-century Italian explorer, who had long been credited by history textbooks as a hero who discovered America, has come under fire over his violent enslavement of native people.
The torn-down Columbus statue is part of a “re-examination taking place nationally and globally around some of these monuments and statues that may represent different things to different people,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, on Saturday night.
“We understand the dynamics that are playing out in Baltimore are part of a national narrative,” Davis said. “We understand the frustrations. What the city wants to do is serve as a national model, particularly with how we’ve done with protesting. We’ve seen people who have taken to the streets, we have supported them. We are going to continue to support it. That’s a full stop.”
The Columbus statue was dragged down as people marched across the city Saturday demanding reallocation of funds from the police department to social services, a reassessment of the public education system, reparations for Black people, housing for the homeless, and the removal of all statues “honoring white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide, and colonizers,” according to a flyer.
Davis said he did not know whether police officers were ordered to allow the statue to be torn down. But he made clear that protecting statues was not a priority of the city police department in the face of homicides and other violent crime.
“Our officers in Baltimore City, who are some of the finest in country, they are principally concerned with the preservation of life,” the mayor’s spokesman said. “That is sacrosanct. Everything else falls secondary to that, including statues.”
City Council President Brandon Scott issued a statement Saturday night saying he suggested former Mayor Catherine Pugh remove the Columbus statue in 2017 when she ordered the removal of several Confederate monuments in the city following a violent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I support Baltimore’s Italian-American community and Baltimore’s indigenous community. I cannot, however, support Columbus,” Scott said.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore Police Department could not be reached immediately for comment Saturday night.
Police maintained distance for much of the protest, which included a march through Fells Point and Harbor East as restaurant patrons dined outdoors on a busy Saturday night. The group stopped briefly outside restaurant Ouzo Bay, which has been come under criticism following a June incident in which Black mother Marcia Grant and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, were denied service at the restaurant. Protesters cheered and applauded patrons who walked out of the eatery in response to their presence.
Weaving among modern apartment buildings and upscale grocery stores, chanting “Black people used to live here,” the group made its way back to the vacant pedestal where the Columbus statue had stood just an hour earlier and applauded their work to take it down.
“This is the only way we can stop hatred,” an organizer bellowed across the crowd.
Carved in Italian Carrara marble, the toppled statue was owned by the city and dedicated on Oct. 8, 1984 by former Mayor William Donald Schaefer and President Ronald Reagan.
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The statue showed Columbus facing east along Eastern Avenue into the rising sun, the direction from which his boats arrived in the New World. A wreath-laying ceremony has long been held in Columbus Piazza, the area around the statue, before the annual Columbus Day Parade, which was replaced by a new Italian Heritage Festival in 2019.
Republican state delegates and Italian-American activists held a press conference at the statue last month to ask Gov. Larry Hogan and Young to preserve and protect the memorials, following activists’ comments about pulling down the monuments themselves and the introduction of a City Council bill this week to rename one of them in honor of victims of police violence.
The toppled statue is one of three monuments to Columbus in Baltimore.
There’s another statue of the explorer that stands in Druid Hill Park, and a 44-foot obelisk dedicated to Columbus in Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park — erected in 1792 to honor the 300th anniversary of his journey from Europe — is believed to be the first monument in the country to honor him.
Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat, has sought to rename that 228-year-old monument since 2017, when a video circulated of a man taking a sledgehammer to its base. Dorsey surveyed neighbors at the time to gather input on how the monument could be renamed to better represent “current-day values.”
His bill, which has not yet received a hearing before the council, would rename the obelisk as the Police Violence Victims Monument.
The debate over the presence of the monuments follows renewed nationwide protests decrying systemic racism and police violence against Black people, prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, who died last month after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.