Chicago Columbus statue protests expose tensions between Italian Americans, Native Americans, supporters

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Monday, July 20, 2020
Chicago grapples with whether to keep Christopher Columbus statues
To many Americans, Christopher Columbus no longer means what he used to. But Italian Americans and other Chicagoans are divided on whether his statues still belong in Grant Park an

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A weekend of protests and violence over statues of Christopher Columbus prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to promise a review of the city's memorials, setting the stage for dialogue about what do with symbols whose meaning has changed for many Americans.

"There's nothing that says that just because a statue was put up at one time, that doesn't mean it needs to be there forever," said Kate Masur, history professor at Northwestern University.

Chicago police release video showing confrontation near Grant Park Columbus statue protest

Police said the video shows a person dumping out a backpack with what appear to be frozen water bottles, which they said were then thrown at officers.

Friday's Grant Park protest highlighted the need for dialogue about what to do when the symbolism of something changes.

"Christopher Columbus has come to symbolize Italian American pride, but also our being accepted in the early stages as immigrants of not only Italian descent, but of all different European descents," said Pasquale D. Gianni of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.

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COPA is investigating the "most egregious complaints" of police misconduct during the protests near the Columbus statue Friday.

"The Christopher Columbus statues do not recognize the Native American, they don't recognize that European colonialism was actually a complete disaster for the native people of North America and all Americas," said Prof. Masur.

Those are the starting points for how to reconcile Columbus' legacy with the new push to eradicate racism. Masur said the toppling of Confederate hero statues elsewhere is a framework for what to do about Columbus in Chicago.

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"There is a history of these protests; they are not coming out of nowhere, but there is an accumulation of them and I think growing numbers of people, again white people who have not been aware of these issues, who haven't necessarily thought about these issues from the perspective of people of color of various kinds," she said.

The Italian American community rejects that.

"The legacy of Columbus has been distorted," Gianni said.

He offered that perhaps the answer is to leave the Columbus statues alone, and add more monuments to African American and native people.

"They have been dehumanized in such an ugly way, but to assert Columbus is singularly and solely responsible for these atrocities would really be a misassertion," he said.

Gianii's Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans said it has been trying to start a dialogue about the statues with Chicago's American Indian Center, but the two sides are wide apart.

The Columbus statues remain under guard in Grant Park and Little Italy, but the debate is just getting started.