We Sat Through (Most of) the Art Commission’s Five-Hour Columbus Statue Zoom Call

Competing sets of facts, allegations of survey fraud, and testimony from no fewer than two disgraced Philly politicians.

columbus statue philly

The Christopher Columbus statue in Philly — before it was boarded up by the city following protests. | Photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Democratic norms may be crumbling all around us, but the erosion apparently hasn’t quite made it to the Philadelphia Public Art Commission. On Wednesday, the nine-member commission heard five and a half hours of public testimony from more than 50 registered speakers about the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza as it decides whether to approve Mayor Kenney’s request that the statue be removed.

The meeting followed repeated confrontations between protesters, who argue that the statue is a symbol of oppression and colonialism and ought to come down, and Columbus defenders, who say the 15th-century sailor is a proud symbol of Italian American culture. That dispute first played out over multiple days in June, not long after Black Lives Matter marchers were successful in their campaign to remove the statue of racist mayor Frank Rizzo from the Municipal Services Building. As protesters elsewhere around the country began toppling statues, a group of armed residents assembled at Marconi Plaza, purportedly to “protect” the Columbus statue there. When protesters first arrived on site, they did so mostly to reject yet another display of vigilantism in Philly; later, after the protesters were met with racial epithets and violence from the vigilante group, the conflict gave way to a broader dispute over the appropriateness of the Columbus statue itself. Eventually, Mayor Kenney said the repeated violent outbursts had created “a concerning public safety situation that cannot be allowed to continue.” He asked the Art Commission to vote to remove the statue.

Those were the stakes at the Wednesday Zoom meeting. The nine commissioners, plus one attorney, began the morning as the only ones on-screen; everyone else was muted until it was their turn to testify. There was, in other words, little opportunity for the back-and-forth rancor that had been on display at Marconi Plaza. Zoom does have its advantages.
Those testifying included Columbus scholars (professional and amateur), political figures (current and disgraced) and civilians (South Philly residents and not). Most of those on the Zoom call defended Columbus, though the city presented the results of a survey that found 80 percent of respondents believe the statue symbolizes oppression. Many of the people advocating for the statue’s removal reported they’d like the city to highlight a different figure to celebrate Italian American history.

Among the notable Columbus advocates was Vince Fumo, who took a break from posting rambling rants on Facebook to vent in real time, calling the art commission a “kangaroo court” and suggesting that if the Columbus statue is removed, Italian Americans might target the Octavius Catto statue, the city’s first memorial to honor a Black man, in retaliation. (Fumo also took a Trumpian tack, blaming the city’s anti-Columbus survey results on voter fraud.)

Other notable statue defenders included former Inquirer columnist Christine Flowers and disgraced former state Supreme Court justice Seamus McCaffery, who was forced to resign in 2014 after he was caught sending pornographic emails. “If we don’t stand up now, who’s next? Are they going to go after the Irish famine monument, or Jewish memorials?” McCaffery wondered, mentioning new targets that no one has apparently given any thought to taking down.

The central source of disagreement was Columbus’s history. In one telling, he was a brave explorer who, as Philly assistant district attorney Robert Petrone put it, was the “first civil rights activist of the Americas,” reportedly saving some Indigenous peoples from cannibalistic tribes. (Petrone also said the claim that Columbus sold slaves is a misunderstanding stemming from a mistranslation of old Spanish.) Plenty of historians completely reject Petrone’s analysis, and there is other evidence, in Columbus’s own writings and those of his contemporaries, suggesting another reality: Columbus was a murderous imperialist who sold Indigenous people into slavery.

If that was the gap on the “factual” matters, you can imagine how things went once speakers started making more emotional appeals. One commenter decried the protesters’ embrace of “critical ideology theory” and “Marxist methods.” Many Italian Americans testified that they want to keep the statue around for its symbolic value. They mentioned that Columbus Day has its origins in oppression and was established after a group of Italian Americans was lynched in New Orleans in 1891. On this point, there is no historical doubt.

The irony was that speakers arguing that removing the statue from city-owned public property would be an assault on their freedoms and akin to silencing them didn’t recognize that they were refusing to accommodate the views of Philadelphians with Native American heritage who want to see the statue go.

And there were Philadelphians with Indigenous heritage who testified. One was Mary Foster, who is part Italian and part Native American. There was no question in her mind: The statue should be taken down, she said, describing it as a “painful reminder of genocide and systemic racism.” To remove it, she went on, is “a small ask for the suffering of those people.”

Not long after, following more than five hours of testimony, the art commission adjourned the meeting. They’ll make their final decision on August 12th.
This story has been updated to correct the sequence of events that led to the first conflict at Marconi Plaza.