Councilman Dorsey: Why we should rededicate Baltimore’s Columbus obelisk to victims of police brutality | COMMENTARY

From left, Tawanda Jones, PFK Boom of 300 Gangstas, State Senator Jill Carter and Baltimore City Councilmember Ryan Dorsey stand on a stage in July with names of people who died at the hands of police. Mr. Dorsey has a bill to rename the country's oldest monument to Columbus to the Police Violence Victims Monument.

Our public monuments are symbols of what we value, honor or affirm as a society. It should not be controversial or unexpected to say that public monuments to white supremacy or those who advanced it no longer have a place in the public square.

It was in this spirit that I worked with activists Tawanda Jones, Darlene Cain, Abdul Salaam and others to introduce legislation to rename Baltimore’s Columbus Obelisk Monument the Police Violence Victims Monument.


Police violence disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and other people of color and always has. It is a symptom of white supremacy. Victims and their families carry physical and emotional trauma with them, paying a terrible cost on our behalf. These victims, their families and communities never receive the justice, acknowledgment, reparation and healing they deserve. Now is the time for a monument honoring these victims.

It’s instructive to note the vast difference in how some respond to the idea of honoring the victims of police violence. To some, the very thought of acknowledging and honoring the sacrifice of police victims is an ideological affront to their worldview, and tellingly, it is considered to be offensive to police officers. That same worldview dictates that there can be no questioning of the propriety of memorializing police officers.


This vast and irreconcilable gap in how we honor and acknowledge the sacrifice of people who bear the physical and emotional cost of violence shows how deeply ingrained it is in the system of white supremacy to lionize those who that system gives power and dismiss those who are harmed by it.

There is a connection between the lionizing of police, the mythologizing of Columbus and victims of police violence, though it might not be obvious at first. Policing as we know it today has its roots in slave patrols, Jim Crow laws and the maintenance of America’s social hierarchy through violence.

Initially, some groups of European immigrants, including Italians, were victims of bigotry, discrimination and violence — including mistreatment by police enforcing the social hierarchy. In fact, the 1892 lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans was in revenge for the alleged murder of the local police chief, and the local newspapers celebrated that lynching as justice.

In the wake of this event, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation recognizing Columbus for the discovery of America. It marked the beginning of Italian Americans gaining the full preferential legal, social, and economic status conferred by being white. This transition to “whiteness” was wrapped up in the mythologizing of Columbus not just as an Italian American hero, but as a white American hero, a symbol of the discovery and conquest of America by white people.

During the early part of the 20th century, much of the ethnic division between groups of European Americans disappeared, while divisions along racial lines hardened. The progressive era brought professionalism to policing, meaning civil service exams and bureaucracy, but did nothing to address the unconstitutional Jim Crow laws that police enforced or anti-Black racism within departments.

By introducing legislation to rename the Columbus Obelisk Monument, I am not trying to start a fight with Italians, police, white people or anyone else. It simply should not be controversial or unexpected to seek to remove, replace or recontextualize the symbols of white supremacy. Allowing these symbols to remain either perpetuates it or denies its existence, past and present. As both a descendant of Italian immigrants and a Maryland colonial family who enslaved Black people and owned plantations that bear the Dorsey name, I have personally benefited from white supremacy. I must work, as all white Americans must, to undo my own racism and to help topple the system of white supremacy itself.

Creating a monument to victims of police violence is about acknowledging the terrible burden that these victims carry for all of us. It's a reminder of the debt we owe these victims and all of those affected by the violence done to them. It is a reminder that we must all work to undo white supremacy in all its forms. It is just one small thing we can do.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey ( represents Baltimore’s Third District.