It’s still in the box, hidden from the triggered gaze. The only ones who know what lies inside the wooden slabs painted in the Italian flag colors are indigenous to Philadelphia, pun intended. It is the statue of an Italian icon, Christopher Columbus, a piece of public art that sat undisturbed for more than 40 years in its current location at the southern end of Broad Street on Marconi Plaza.
But a couple of years ago and in the wake of the George Floyd riots, a group of progressive activists in the city decided to wage war against the statue and its significance, arguing that Columbus was a genocidal colonizer and should not be given a place of honor in a newly “woke” metropolis such as Philadelphia.
And so, the city tried to pull down the statue, with the charge led by the current mayor and South Philly native, Jim Kenney. He said, “The Christopher Columbus statue has been a source of controversy.” He immediately jumped to accusing the Italian explorer of being a sadistic maniac, alleging that “Columbus enslaved indigenous people and punished those who failed to meet his expected service by severing limbs, or in some cases, murder.”
There is very little evidence of this homicidal intent on the part of the sailor from Genoa. In fact, a larger body of scholarship establishes precisely the opposite. My friend and fellow attorney and noted Columbus scholar Robert Petrone has recorded an entire series of lectures regarding the history of Columbus.
But truth has never been a priority for progressives like Kenney, whose administration has taken its cue from the most radical and partisan advocates for all sorts of social justice initiatives like open borders, the elimination of cash bail, a criminal justice overhaul that would empty the jails, and attempts to hijack the fair and balanced teaching of history in public schools. To appease this diverse group of malcontents, Kenney ordered the removal of the statue, which had been gifted to the people of Philadelphia in the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately for the mayor, he had no idea of the passion and the resolve of those like attorney George Bochetto, who agreed to oppose the statue’s removal in court. He conducted most of his work pro bono because, as he told me when I interviewed him on a local radio show last year, “Anybody that knows the history of Columbus Day knows that its origination was with the New Orleans lynching of nine Italian American immigrants in a savage, savage lynching … and it divided the country so deeply that Congress insisted on enacting Columbus Day in honor of Italian Americans, and Christopher Columbus, and the achievements that Italian Americans have brought to the community.”
From the beginning, the supporters of Columbus, among whom I count myself, made it clear that we were not attached to a simple statue because it was a piece of significant public art. The meaning of the monument transcends the stone and the carving. It represents the struggle and the glory of a heritage that has contributed so much to this nation. The attacks on the statue and the figure of Columbus are justifiably seen as a direct attack on Italian Americans.
For that reason, and that reason alone, Bochetto and his legal team, supported by a large group of sympathizers in a galvanized Italian American community, fought against the city’s attempt to erase that history and replace it with something designed to please our critics. Columbus Day was removed from the city calendar and rebaptized as “Indigenous Person’s Day.” When a lower court held that it was improper for Kenney to try to remove the statue, his administration appealed the decision to the Commonwealth Court.
Last Friday, that court ruled against the city and ordered it to remove the wooden box that had been spitefully erected two years ago to hide Columbus from public view. As of this writing, the box is still there. But barring any appeals to the state Supreme Court, which are possible given the predisposition of this mayor and his administration to fight tooth and nail against the Italians of this city, the statue of a man who played a crucial role in opening the door to the west, and to our destiny, will finally see the light of day.
It is shameful that it took this long for justice to be served, but the length of the journey only enhances the sweet taste of victory.