By Countercurrents Collective
Protesters pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore, the U.S. They threw the statue into the city’s Inner Harbor.
Statues of Columbus have also been toppled in cities including Miami; Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Virginia; St Paul, Minnesota; and Boston, where one was decapitated.
In Baltimore, Demonstrators used ropes to topple the monument on Saturday night near the Little Italy neighbourhood. Across the U.S., thousands of protesters mobilized by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police have called for the removal of statues of Columbus, Confederate figures and others.
They say the Italian explorer is responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native peoples in the Americas – the North and Latin America.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the statue was owned by the city and dedicated in 1984 by former mayor William Donald Schaefer and rightist President Ronald Reagan.
A spokesman for Baltimore mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young told The Sun the toppling of the statue is a part of a national and global reexamination over monuments “that may represent different things to different people”.
“We understand the dynamics that are playing out in Baltimore are part of a national narrative,” Lester Davis said.
Video posted on Twitter showed a group using ropes to pull the statue from its pedestal in the city’s Little Italy neighbourhood as others cheered. It was then rolled to the city’s Inner Harbor and pushed into the water, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Attacks on statues of controversial figures, including Confederate generals and other leaders who owned slaves or who supported slavery or racist policies, is part of the fallout from anti-racism protests across the nation in the wake of the brutal arrest death of African America George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
U.S. President Donald Trump has become particularly incensed by statue destruction. He has vowed to punish those responsible.
There are two other statues of Columbus in the city.
Columbus, Ohio, also took down a statue of Christopher Columbus
Columbus, Ohio, removed a statue of its namesake, Christopher Columbus, from outside its City Hall on Wednesday morning.
The monument is one of the most recent to be taken down amid the countrywide call to replace statues of colonizers, slave owners and other controversial historical figures.
Crews arrived early Wednesday to begin taking down the statue. The removal took approximately three hours.
The statue, a gift from Genoa, Italy, in 1955, will be placed at a secure city facility.
Mayor Andrew Ginther announced on June 18 that the statue would be removed, stating that it does not reflect the city.
“For many people in our community, the statue represents patriarchy, oppression and divisiveness. That does not represent our great city, and we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past,” Ginther said in a statement at the time. “Now is the right time to replace this statue with artwork that demonstrates our enduring fight to end racism and celebrate the themes of diversity and inclusion.”
Columbus is regularly criticized for his brutal treatment and killing of Native Americans.
Ginther said he asked the city’s art commission to take the lead in the process of replacing the statue with public art that better reflects Columbus’ citizens and “offers a shared vision for the future.”
“By replacing the statue, we are removing one more barrier to meaningful and lasting change to end systemic racism,” Ginther said in the statement. “Its removal will allow us to remain focused on critical police reforms and increasing equity in housing, health outcomes, education and employment.”
The monument is not the first Columbus statue to be taken down in the U.S. In June, a statue of Columbus was removed in Boston after protesters beheaded it.
Protesters nationwide have toppled or vandalized controversial monuments as many cities have announced the removal or relocation of public works paying tribute to embattled historical figures.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said The American Museum of Natural History will remove a prominent statue of Theodore Roosevelt from its entrance after years of criticism. Charleston, South Carolina, recently removed its statue of former vice president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, officials took down a statue of Diego de Vargas, a Spanish conquistador who brutalized Native Americans.
In Denver, Denver School Board member Tay Anderson has joined other activists to push for the renaming of schools named after figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, “who may have been founding fathers but they didn’t stand up to racism and slavery, so they were complicit.”.
Anderson also has been part of an effort to change the name of a neighbourhood, Stapleton, named after former mayor and Ku Klux Klan member Benjamin Stapleton, whose name once also adorned the city’s airport.
“We are better than this,” says Anderson.
A new state flag for Mississippi
In past weeks, Mississippi passed a bill to create a new state flag without the Confederate battle emblem. In New Jersey, Princeton University took former President Woodrow Wilson’s name off a college, citing his racist views.
Countless other petitions and protests are calling for similar statue removals and name changes in an effort to at least spark a dialogue about who deserves honouring. In many cases, such symbols were erected decades after the Civil War by the Daughters of the Confederacy, a civic group aimed at upholding the South’s racial segregation.
“There’s no question that all movements require conversation and dialogue to truly move ahead,” says Melina Abdullah, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. “But what doesn’t require conversation is knowing things shouldn’t be named after people who dehumanized other people.”
It is hard to know how far this latest drive to rename landmarks will get. Almost every historical figure could be worthy of a deeper review.
In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, Democrats are pushing to rename John Wayne Airport because of racist statements made by the actor in a 1971 magazine interview. Wayne was quoted in Playboy as saying, “I believe in white supremacy.”
A Los Angeles Times editorial supporting the name change argues that it will help the county — a conservative stronghold in a largely Democratic state — confront its racist past. Wayne’s son, Ethan, 58, issued a statement strongly denying his father was a racist.
The fight over monuments
The statue of a young man, gun at his side, has sat outside the Harrison County Courthouse in Marshall, Texas, since 1905. Its main inscription reads “Confederate.”
That is enough to warrant its removal, says Demetria McFarland, a fifth-grade teacher who has started a petition to that end.
“That statue, in a public place, doesn’t represent my values as a Black woman, it represents slavery and the torture my ancestors went through,” says McFarland, founder of Marshall Against Violence. “Other cities are taking down these symbols of racial divide, so why not also here in our little east Texas town?”
History is on review as the 21st century’s latest civil rights movement catches fire, smouldering embers fanned by the death in police hands of George Floyd on Memorial Day.
From California to Washington, D.C., grassroots efforts such as McFarland’s are urging citizens and lawmakers to reject historical figures whose backstories reveal views or deeds that insult millions of Americans.
Consider Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian seafarer who gave his name to America. Some historians contend that Vespucci exaggerated his claims, partnered in his enterprise with a man-made rich from the slave trade, and stole the limelight from his contemporary, Christopher Columbus — whose own statues have been the target due to his murderous treatment of Indigenous people.
Change has arrived
Renaming is a powerful way to announce that change has arrived. For many people of colour, the time has come to stop ignoring symbols of oppression, says Elena Ortiz, chair of the Santa Fe Freedom Council of The Red Nation, a New Mexico-based activist group focused on the liberation of indigenous peoples.
“The great reckoning is here,” says Ortiz, whose group successfully pushed to remove statues of Juan de Oñate, a 16th-century Spanish conquistador who raped Pueblo women and stole from enslaved tribal communities. “It’s time to fan the flames.”
Jefferson, a slaveholder
Ortiz says it is not appropriate to honour figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and explorer Kit Carson. “Jefferson was a slave holder, Jackson believed the only good Indian is a dead Indian and Carson was an Indian murderer,” she says. “When people ask do we need to rename Carson City, Nevada, the answer is yes.”
A new alliance in St. Louis
In St. Louis, Moji Sidiqi, executive director of the Regional Muslim Action Network, has joined forces with an Israeli restaurant owner to start a petition to not only remove a statue of King Louis, the city’s namesake but also to rename the city itself.
“History tells us King Louis was a Christian zealot who was an Islamophobe and anti-Semite” in 13th-century France, says Sidiqi. “We don’t want to see the statue broken or trashed, but it doesn’t need to be in a public place where Muslims and Jews and African Americans go to make memories with their families.”
For Sidiqi, the current push to rename things isn’t about erasing history but rather choosing what is worthy of celebration.
“Are we supposed to keep pretending our beautiful nation doesn’t have symbols of anti-inclusion and slavery everywhere?” she says. “We’re trying to take away symbols of hate and replace them with symbols of love and community.”
The movement also includes a growing call to rename mountains, parks and other destinations, says Jennifer Runyon, a research staffer at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Washington, D.C., which meets monthly to review petitions requesting such changes.
“We’ve gotten a half a dozen proposals related to racial issues lately, requests to change names that may have ‘squaw’ or ‘negro’ or ‘digger,’ which is offensive to some Native Americans,” says Runyon. “We are a reactive body, we don’t go looking for an issue. But if people bring one to us, we’ll review it all and see what people locally say. You just have to have a good name ready to replace it.”
One example of such change, years in the making, is in California. Instead of Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe being a tribute to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, it will be called Da-ek Dow Go-et Mountain, Washoe for “saddle between two mountains.”
“We are open to all petitions,” says Runyon. “All we ask is that you have a good and relevant name ready that speaks to what people in the community care about.”
Who and how to honour
Black Lives Matter (BLM) leader Abdullah suggests that perhaps instead of more statues to Abraham Lincoln, who helped officially emancipate slaves, why not celebrate “people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Black people who worked hard to free themselves and others?”
Activist Ortiz says why not move away from naming things after people, and instead focus on nature. “We need to step away from the worship of human beings, and in so doing accept that we’re not the centre of the universe,” she says.
True societal shifts may remain elusive
Some said they are worried that by focusing intently on the removal of physical objects or name changes, true societal shifts may remain elusive.
“We strongly support the removal of statues that celebrate histories of genocide and aggression against Native people, we have to ensure that this doesn’t gloss over the real history of this continent,” says Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute, a Longmont, Colorado, organization focused on the economic empowerment of Native Americans.
“These activities are only a first step toward true healing, justice and reconciliation between Native people and the larger society,” he says.
Historian Douglas Brinkley says in the past, presidents have made efforts to “expand the national narrative” on matters of race and equality, citing President Barack Obama’s executive orders on New York City’s Stonewall National Monument, which celebrates the fight for LGBTQ rights, and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, spotlighting African Americans who served in the U.S. military.
“That was the right thing to do then, and the right thing to do now is de-Confederatize America,” says Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University in Houston. “People aren’t in the mood for compromising.”
Not surprisingly, efforts to remove statues or rename places have drawn emotional reactions as some balk at what they see as the erasure of history.
A Catholic priest in San Francisco recently held a public exorcism on the site in Golden Gate Park where protestors had torn down a statue of Father Junipero Serra, who founded many California missions.
Serra was known to force Native Americans to convert and punish them if they rebelled.
“Evil has made itself present here,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said in a video of the event.
In St. Louis, the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese issued a statement opposing efforts to change the name of the city. In siding with counter-protesters who do not want the statue removed or city renamed, the Archdiocese highlighted King Louis’ charity toward the poor, adding that “we should not seek to erase history, but recognize and learn from it, while working to create new opportunities for our brothers and sisters.”
Renaming does not solve the problem
Scholars say that the claim that taking away a statue or renaming a street erases history is questionable.
“We make a mistake saying memorials are about history,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, Germany, which promotes the cross-cultural exchange of ideas. “We don’t memorialize all our history, we pick and choose to remember men and women who live by the values we share.”
Neiman said the debates over which statues, streets and schools should be renamed should remain local, allowing community members to decide what gets scrapped, what finds its way to a museum with context and what perhaps gets turned into an art project that changes the meaning of the offending symbol.
“It’s not about history,” she says. “It’s about values.”
That was the approach South African leaders took in trying to reconcile that country’s racist past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by President Nelson Mandela in 1996, aimed to help Black and white South Africans come to grips with the country’s racist apartheid past while speeding up a transition to democracy.
While that process did not involve much statue and location renaming beyond the removal of tributes to Hendrik Vorwoerd, the architect of apartheid, it did highlight the impact of having government officials be part of the reckoning, says Ronald Slye, a law professor at Seattle University who was an advisor to the TRC.
“One of the lessons to be taken from the TRC is in order for real change to come about, the push for change needs to be part of a broader process in society and there needs to be clear political support for it,” says Slye.
Slye says the sheer size of the U.S. and its divided political makeup means it is more likely that local movements aimed at renaming landmarks will precede changes at a national level. But the point isn’t just to change a name, he says.
“In the end, it’s easy to change a name of a street or take down some monuments and say, ‘Now we’re fine,’” he says. “But it’s not the street that’s the problem, it’s broader.”
Robbie Powelson is fine with starting with a street. Growing up in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Powelson did not give much thought to the name of an English explorer whose name adorns a local street, school and statue.
But inspired by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and its efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy, Powelson now leads a campaign to revisit the tributes paid to Sir Francis Drake, best known for a 16th-century sail that claimed California for England and less known for being a slave trader.
“Changing the names of things is significant because it is visceral and real to people,” says Powelson, founder of Tam Equity Campaign, a local activist group. “Through these symbolic changes, we can have a substantive shift in local consciousness.”
By Countercurrents Collective