Chicago's Columbus statues have been removed 'temporarily' and represent a small victory for Black, Indigenous communities. But activists still want more meaningful action toward racial justice.

insider@insider.com (Ariel Parrella-Aureli)
·5 mins read
Police block a march route for Black Lives Matter Protesters on Michigan Ave in Chicago, United States, on July 25, 2020.
Police block a march route for Black Lives Matter Protesters on Michigan Ave in Chicago, United States, on July 25, 2020.

Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • On July 30, the city's final Columbus statue in Chicago, located on the South Side, was removed.

  • "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," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. 

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In the early hours of July 24, downtown Chicago was a lively scene of police officers, residents, photographers, and a line of anxious media, all present to witness the 87-year-old Christopher Columbus statue be removed at 3 a.m. local time.

The decision came from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who issued the order for the statue to be removed after tense clashes with police and protesters in previous weeks that turned violent after protesters attempted to take down the statue themselves. 

The mayor also ordered the removal of the Columbus statue in the city's Little Italy neighborhood, which came down around 5 a.m, the same day, however with much less of a crowd. And on July 30, the city's final Columbus statue on the South Side was removed.

Columbus Statue in Chicago.
Columbus Statue in Chicago.

Ariel Parrella-Aureli

While Lightfoot has called the removals only "temporary," Chicago protesters and activists who have been on the front-lines of the Black Lives Matter movement since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis see the removals as a small victory.

One woman who has been active in Chicago protests since early June and witnessed the 3 a.m. downtown statue removal, said the moment was an exciting one to experience, although it should have happened sooner. 

"It was awesome to see it come down but I was disappointed that it took so long,"  the woman, who requested to remain anonymous, said. "I felt like it only came down from the pressure of protesters and activists, not because the city or Lightfoot actually felt like it needed to. A mayor who listens to the people would have taken it down months ago."

In a statement, Lightfoot said the decision was in response to demonstrations that became "unsafe for both protesters and police, as well as efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner."

"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," Lightfoot said. 

But critics, including politicians and police supporters who are against the statue removals, say taking them down, especially in the middle of the night, was a cowardly move.

John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, who is of Italian descent and has been an outspoken critic of the mayor, arrived at Grant Park wearing an "Italia" jacket along with his family to watch the statue removal. 

 

"Fifty-two police officers got hurt defending that statue and now the mayor wants to spit in their face and take the statue down," Catanzara said to reporters in front of the Columbus statue. "It's Columbus today, it'll be something next month and something else the month after that. The mob cannot rule the city. The politicians are supposed to rule this city, and they are cowards."

Steven Morgan, a nonbinary Black independent Chicago journalist known as the "Vagina Man" at recent protests because they wear a vagina costume to stand out, was also at the state removal and got into a heated discussion with Catanzara and others about why the statue should be taken down and what Columbus represents. 

While they said the removal is necessary, what's really needed is opening up a dialogue about America's history with torture, racism, and the complexity of how our culture views influential controversial figures.

"Columbus, of course, was a terrible human being in terms of his actions, but I can't speak on absolutes on human beings," Morgan said. 

Morgan, who often engages with police officers and pro-Trump supporters at protests and is known as an advocate for the homeless, wants the statue's removal to signal needed conversation about what we deem good and evil and how we can learn from one another in a communal way. 

Columbus Statue in Chicago.
Columbus Statue in Chicago.

Ariel Parrella-Aureli

Members of the Chi-Nations Youth Council, an inter-tribal Native youth council in Chicago, also witnessed the historical event. The council said it is proud to see the removal of a statue that represents white supremacy, seeing it as a win toward the goal of decolonization. 

"The people got this statue removed, the solidarity between Black and Indigenous peoples got this statue removed," the council said in a statement. "Yet we don't want this to become a virtual signal. We want meaningful ways to address the harm caused by this structure that does not value the lives of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples." 

Chicago is the latest city to take down the statues of Columbus, who has long been seen as the man who discovered the Americas even though it was already populated with Native Americans. Columbus statues have come under increased scrutiny amid the nationwide reckoning over racial injustice. 

While Chicago's mayor has been slow to act on the demands of protesters like getting police out of schools, defunding the police and taking down racist statues of historical figures, other cities have made changes: In Columbia, South Carolina — the first US city named after Columbus — the Columbus statue was removed in June. Similarly in Columbus, Ohio, the statue was removed at the beginning of the month. Other cities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas, and Kentucky have followed suit in officially removing their Columbus statues and others of controversial statues of historical leaders.

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