Italian Americans have reacted with anger after two statues of Christopher Columbus in Chicago were removed under cover of darkness in the early hours of Friday morning under the orders of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Before dawn, city crews used cranes to remove a monument in Chicago’s Little Italy and a massive bronze statue in Grant Park, which were first erected at the city’s first and second World’s Fairs in 1893 and 1933, respectively.
Italian American community leaders say they were taken aback by Lightfoot’s abrupt order to remove the statues, which Lightfoot calls a ‘temporary’ measure until passions cool. The Grant Park statue was at the center of violent scenes last week, when 49 police officers were injured by a mob hurling rocks and fireworks while attempting to tear the statue down.
While the protesters decried the statue as a symbol of oppression, many Italian Americans see Columbus as a figure of ethnic pride, and of Italian contributions to American history.
Chicago Alderman Anthony Napolitano told the Sun-Times that he’s very saddened by the removals, and he questioned why they were carried out under the cover of darkness. He dubbed it ‘not the American way.’
‘It’s because a bunch of people, a bunch of socialist cancel culture people cried about it that we removed it in the middle of the night,’ Napolitano said. ‘In America, we do this by discussion.’
Napolitano, a former Chicago police officer and fire fighter, is the son of a mother arrived from Italy when she was 9, and a father who is a second generation Italian immigrant.
Gianni Pasquale of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans blasted it a betrayal to the Italian American community.
‘The Italian American community feels betrayed. The Mayor’s office is giving into a vocal and destructive minority. This is not how the democratic process is supposed to work,’ he said.
‘Are we giving in to the violence of the left at this point?’ JCCIA President Sergio Giangrande asked the Chicago Sun Times. ‘This was a decision made without us. We were not at the table to discuss what other options there were.’
‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not. As a community, we are extremely hurt,’ said Giangrande.
Many statues of Columbus, such as the ones removed in Chicago, were erected at a time when Italian immigrants often faced harsh discrimination and even ethnic violence, including one of the largest single mass lynchings in American history when 11 were murdered in 1891 in New Orleans.
Columbus Day was first declared a national holiday the following year, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, in part as an effort to soothe tensions with Italian Americans following the lynching.
Others in Chicago have taken Lightfoot’s side in the statue debate, and some are pushing for even more extreme action. Five of Chicago’s left-wing alderman issued a statement on Friday calling the Columbus statues ‘monuments to white supremacy,’ and vowed to fight for their permanent removal.
‘We thank the activists and organizers who put their bodies on the line to make this happen, and we commit to continue to work towards replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and dismantling white supremacy in all its forms,’ the aldermen said.
In a statement, Lightfoot said that she had ordered both statues ‘temporarily removed…until further notice.’
The mayor said removing the statues, which have attracted violent protests, would allow police resources to be ‘concentrated where they are most needed throughout the city, and particularly in our South and West Side communities.’
Lightfoot said that attempts by protesters to tear down the massive Grant Park statue with ropes were ‘extremely dangerous,’ adding: ‘This step is about an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols.’
She said that the city would form a process to assess the future of every monument and mural in the city.
The developments in Chicago come as Lightfoot publicly battles Trump over his plans to surge federal law enforcement in the city, where a shocking wave of violence has seen murders soar 190 percent from last year’s level in the past four weeks. The removal of the statues also the latest sortie in increasingly contentious culture wars that have rocked the nation, with calls for racial justice after the death of George Floyd expanding into bitter disputes over how to appraise the soul of the country and the symbols of its history.
Other statues of Columbus have come under attack across the United States during the Floyd protests in recent weeks, with one decapitated in Boston and others removed or toppled in Houston, Richmond, Baltimore and elsewhere.
Trump’s plan to send federal agents into Chicago and other cities follows the controversial deployment of militarized federal agents in Portland, where the agents clad in camouflage simply marked ‘Police’ have clashed with protesters, some of whom have surrounded and attacked federal facilities during 57 straight nights of violent unrest.
On Thursday night, Trump warned that he would ‘go into all of the cities’ and threatened to send up to 75,000 federal agents into the streets of America, or roughly three-quarters of all federal officers in the country.
In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump mentioned Detroit as a likely city for increased federal enforcement. He has also singled out Philadelphia and New York City, and on Friday reports emerged that a federal tactical team was headed to Seattle ahead of protests anticipated there over the weekend.
Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot reacted with bitter opposition after Trump announced on Wednesday that federal agents would be sent there following a wave violence in the Windy City, where 63 people were shot, 12 of them fatally, just last weekend.
‘Under no circumstances will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents,’ Lightfoot said in reaction to the plan earlier this week.
Violence has soared in Chicago in recent weeks. Chicago Police Department Area 2, which covers much of the South Side, has seen murder rates jump 131 percent in the past four weeks from the same time last year, with 30 people killed between June 21 and July 19, according to CPD data.
Area 5, which covers more affluent parts of Chicago’s northwest side including O’Hare International Airport, has suffered a staggering 500 percent increase in murder, though a lower total, with killings jumping to six from just one during the same period last year.
Before sunrise on Friday, the Columbus statue in Grant Park was removed in front of a small cheering crowd, while passing cars honked as the monument was winched to the ground.
The statue, which stood over 33 feet tall including its pedestal, was hauled away on the back of a flatbed truck after coming down at around 3am, but it was unclear where the monument would be taken.
Italian Americans in Chicago funded the Grant Park statue through donations as well as a significant state contribution, and it was dedicated on Italian Day in 1933 at the Century Of Progress, the city’s second World’s Fair.
The second statue removed from Chicago on Friday, from Little Italy’s Arrigo Park, was a nine-foot tall bronze monument that was first displayed in the Italian Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s first World’s Fair. It had been completed in Rome and was blessed by Pope Leo XIII before being shipped to Chicago.
The removals come after protesters gathered on Thursday night outside Mayor Lightfoot’s home to demand that she defund the Chicago Police Department and kick Trump’s federal agents out of the city.
More than 2,000 protesters blocked an intersection outside Lightfoot’s home, waving banners reading ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘No justice no peace’, while there was no sign of federal agents.
Chants turned from ‘f*** CPD’ to cheers of elation when someone announced over the microphone that the city is planning to take the controversial Columbus monuments down from Grant Park and Little Italy.
Sources said the mayor is looking to avoid a repeat of the clashes witnessed between cops and protesters last week, reported the Chicago Tribune.
However, there was outrage at the decision from Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara who slammed Lightfoot as a ‘coward’.
Steve Cortes, spokesman for pro-Trump Super PAC America First, called the mayor ‘feckless’ and accused her of giving in to ‘violent nihilists’.
Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492 unleashed centuries of European colonization, making him a symbol of conquest and violence to many Native Americans.
One Columbus statue was beheaded in Boston last month while another was torn down and thrown in a lake in Richmond, while other cities have taken pre-emptive action to remove their statues like Chicago has done.
The empty pedestal in Richmond was spray-painted and covered with a sign saying ‘Columbus Represents Genocide’ after the statue was set on fire and taken down.
The statue of Columbus was at the center of last Friday’s violence when cops unleashed tear gas on protesters and several were left injured after they attempted to tear down the statue.
At least 20 complaints of police brutality were filed against officers following the night’s events, with one activist Miracle Boyd saying she had one of her teeth knocked out by a cop when they smacked her in the face.
Days later, Chicago police released footage showing protesters aiming fireworks and frozen water bottles at officers and announced 49 officers had been injured by ‘criminal agitators’ in the commotion.
On Tuesday in another neighborhood, a spray of bullets from a car passing a gang member’s funeral wounded 15 people and sent dozens running for their lives.
‘I’ve never seen things worse in this city than they are right now,’ said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest and longtime activist on the city’s South Side.
Trump announced on Wednesday that federal agents would be sent to Chicago, ignoring Lightfoot’s warnings that deploying paramilitary personnel would ‘spell disaster’ for the city.
‘What we do not need, and what will certainly make our community less safe is secret, federal agents deployed to Chicago,’ Lightfoot said in a letter to Trump.
‘Secret, federal agents who do not know Chicago, are unfamiliar with the unique circumstances of our neighborhoods and who would operate outside the established infrastructure of local law enforcement would not be effective, regardless of the number, and worse will foment a massive wave of opposition,’ Lightfoot said.
A collection of activist groups had filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, seeking to block federal agents from interfering in or policing protests.
However, Lightfoot sought to ease concerns that the surge will resemble the kind of scene that unfolded in Portland, where unidentified agents in camouflage have beaten unarmed protesters and stuffed some of them into unmarked vehicles.
Officials in Portland are also pushing back against the federal agents, with a judge granting a temporary restraining order Thursday, banning them from arresting legal observers and journalists at protests while protesters gathered outside the courthouse chanting ‘hands up please don’t shoot’.
The president warned he will ‘go into all of the cities’ and will put in 60,000 troops on the nation’s streets in an interview with Sean Hannity Thursday night.
‘We’ll go into all of the cities, any of the cities. We’re ready. We’ll put in 50,000, 60,000 people that really know what they’re doing,’ Trump said.
‘And they’re strong. They’re tough and we can solve those problems so fast.’
Lightfoot said she has been told the U.S. Attorney’s Office will supervise the additional agents supporting the Chicago offices of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But given the longstanding animosity between city officials and Trump, leaders from the mayor downwards worry that those promises will not hold up.
City officials will be on guard for any ‘steps out of line,’ particularly from agents with the Homeland Security Department, and they will not hesitate ‘to take the president to court,’ Lightfoot said.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Attorney General Bill Barr both said the mission in Portland — to protect federal property — differs from the focus in Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque.
Barr said the number of agents being deployed to Chicago is ‘comparable’ to the Kansas City surge of more than 200.
Trump, who is making law and order a central theme of his re-election campaign, painted Democrat-led cities as out of control and lashed out at the ‘radical left.
‘In recent weeks, there has been a radical movement to defend, dismantle and dissolve our police department,’ Trump said, blaming the movement for ‘a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.’
Lightfoot has repeatedly said she does not support protesters’ calls to pull money from police in favor of social services.