Pedestals in two Chicago parks that once held up statues of Christopher Columbus have stood empty since last week. Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered their temporary removal following protests that turned violent. Now, activists are hoping to make their removal permanent.
The mayor’s action has been condemned by some as capitulation to mob rule, but the debate over what place monuments like these should have in the city is ongoing.
Heather Miller, executive director of the American Indian Center in Albany Park, explained in a statement why the organization is calling for the statues’ permanent removal:
“We have to remember that Columbus never actually landed on the country that we now call America but his actions had a major impact on how this country was founded. When he did arrive in the islands, he immediately enslaved the native people that he found there, he killed them, he raped them, he murdered them, and these [actions] were replicated with native people here in the Americas. We’re still suffering from genocide and from colonization, and those are the things that that statue represents to us.”
But Pasquale Gianni, spokesperson for the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, questions the scholarship upon which Miller and other activists base their opinions.
“This revisionist narrative of Columbus … [has] been refuted by prominent scholars and historians on Columbus that tell a very different tale of a peaceful and deeply religious man who befriended all of the natives that he encountered,” he said.
Miller is unconvinced.
“A lot of the information comes from Columbus’ journals, and he talks about enslaving, killing, raping, mutilating the natives he found there,” she said. “If it’s coming from his own journals and writings, I would say that’s pretty accurate about what he did.”
Gabriel Piemonte said he founded the Italian American Heritage Society in part as a refutation of organizations like the JCCIA which he believes claim to speak for all Italian Americans.
“We’d be much more interested in Italian American representation that did away with deeply problematic symbols like Columbus and [Italo] Balbo and focused instead on the story of immigration, of how we’ve been able to survive as a community of people, what identity looks for us now, and what navigating a multicultural future looks like in America,” Piemonte said. “So maybe there’s something other than deep dish pizza, Christopher Columbus and ‘The Sopranos’ that we can talk about.
“There’s a shift in our city and our monuments need to reflect the change in demographics and the changing political identity of our city as well as our social and cultural identity. We don’t want a murderer on our front door anymore,” Piemonte said. “To have that statue being presented as one of the first things that visitors to the city see, then to us that’s saying that’s what the city wants us to celebrate – genocide, colonization, structural racism.”
But in the removal of statues that Gianni believes were and continue to be instrumental in creating a sense of civic and ethnic pride in Chicago’s Italian American community, he sees a broader issue – an attempt at historic erasure.
“Ultimately this conversation is one of upholding the majesty of truth, and what Columbus represents in his brave and courageous explorations. Rejecting Columbus would be a rejection of the hundreds of millions of immigrants that came to this world and contributed to it in a meaningful way,” Gianni said.
While Miller is steadfast that there is no room for compromise on statues of Christopher Columbus, she does want to make it clear that AIC’s stance is not reflective of the group’s feelings about Italian Americans in general.
“I recognize that Italian Americans struggled at one point in this country, and we also recognize that there are plenty of really amazing Italian Americans that have contributed to this country in a variety of different ways,” she said. “So rather than focus on someone who did some really terrible things, let’s celebrate someone that’s more positive and underscore the real importance, the real value, that Italian Americans have in this country.”