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Baltimore mayor vetoes bill to rename Christopher Columbus obelisk in honor of victims of police violence

An obelisk honoring Christopher Columbus is located near the intersection of Harford Road and Walther Avenue in Baltimore. It's shown in 2017, after the monument was damaged.
An obelisk honoring Christopher Columbus is located near the intersection of Harford Road and Walther Avenue in Baltimore. It's shown in 2017, after the monument was damaged. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has vetoed a bill that would rename a city monument dedicated to explorer Christopher Columbus to instead honor victims of police violence.

In a letter to City Council President Brandon Scott dated Monday, Young said he shared a concern expressed by Police Commissioner Michael Harrison ahead of the bill’s passage that the monument to be renamed was close to another memorial honoring officers who died in the line of duty.

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“I agree with the commissioner that both memorials are important, and that they should be places for reflection and remembrance, free of disruption and divisiveness,” Young wrote.

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced the legislation that would rename the Columbus obelisk in Herring Run Park to the “Victims of Police Violence Monument.” The bill came amid a national reckoning both over Columbus' place in history and police brutality against Black people.

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But Harrison questioned the location of the proposed monument, which is in the same section of the park as a memorial installed in 2004 to five Northeast District police officers who died on the job.

The council approved the measure by an 11-4 vote in September despite Harrison’s objection. All council members are Democrats, as is the mayor.

In his letter, Young recognized the city “remains in a moment of reckoning as we seek to rebuild the trust between our police and the communities they serve."

“As we look to remember people who have been harmed by those in the policing profession, I am confident in Baltimore’s ability to do so in a meaningful and productive ways,” Young wrote.

Dorsey tweeted Young’s letter, saying: “If cops are saying that they don’t want a memorial for victims of police violence near a memorial for police, then it’s the cops sowing division.”

Columbus, a 15th-century Italian explorer long has been credited in classrooms as a hero who discovered America, but he violently enslaved native people.

Another Columbus-related bill that had been awaiting Young’s review became law Monday without his signature. The law changes the city’s Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples' Day. The council pushed through the legislation in early October in hopes of changing the name before Columbus Day this year on Oct. 12, but Young failed to act by that date.

The two-story-tall Columbus obelisk at Herring Run is believed to be the first U.S. monument to honor him, erected in 1792 by Frenchman Chevalier d’Anemours at his home, where the Eastside District Court building now sits.

The obelisk was moved to its present location in 1963, according to newspaper accounts. A plaque indicates it was rededicated by then-Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin in 1964.

The obelisk was damaged in 2017. A video posted to YouTube showed a man repeatedly striking its base with a sledgehammer, as well as signs reading “Racism, tear it down” and “The future is racial and economic justice.” The vandalism came just days after city officials removed four controversial monuments tied to the Confederacy and slavery.

This summer, demonstrators tore down a Columbus statue in Harbor East on July 4 and pitched the sculpture in the Inner Harbor. An Italian American organization is seeking to restore the sculpture and hopes to display it again publicly.

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