The Mayor’s Overnight Removal Of 2 Christopher Columbus Statues Draws Support And Outcry From Chicagoans

base of Columbus statue in Grant Park
Only the base of the Columbus statue in Grant Park remains after it was temporarily removed early Friday morning. Carrie Shepherd / WBEZ
base of Columbus statue in Grant Park
Only the base of the Columbus statue in Grant Park remains after it was temporarily removed early Friday morning. Carrie Shepherd / WBEZ

The Mayor’s Overnight Removal Of 2 Christopher Columbus Statues Draws Support And Outcry From Chicagoans

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Two statues of Christopher Columbus that stood in Chicago parks were taken down early Friday at the direction of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a week after protesters trying to topple one of the monuments to the Italian explorer clashed with police.

Crews used a large crane to remove the statue in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park from its pedestal. A small crowd cheered and passing cars honked as the statue came down about 3 a.m. The second statue was removed about 5:30 a.m. Friday from Arrigo Park in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood.

In a statement issued after the statues were taken down, the Democratic mayor’s office said they were being “temporarily removed … until further notice.” It said the removals were “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.”

Columbus statues Chicago
In a statement Friday morning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said the two statues — one in Grant Park and one in Arrigo Park — had been temporarily removed “in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police.” David Wilson / Flickr / Wikimedia

“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,” the mayor’s office said in the statement, which said the statues were removed following “consultation with various stakeholders.”

Plans to remove the Grant Park statue were first reported Thursday night by the Chicago Tribune and the removal followed hours of vocal confrontations between opponents and supporters of the statue. On July 17, protesters had clashed with police, who used batons to beat people and made arrests after they say protesters targeted them with fireworks, rocks and other items.

“I’m glad the statue was taken down,” Hillary Aarons, 27, from Bridgeport said Friday morning in front of the monument. “It’s symbolic of systematic oppression of so many people of color in our country and that doesn’t need to be the standing symbol for what our city is.”

Ephraim Martin Columbus statue reaction
Ephraim Martin has lived near Grant Park for more than 30 years. Martin says he’s been fighting for a monument for a Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, “the founding father of Chicago who has been disrespected for over 240 years.” He says it doesn’t need to replace the Columbus statue, but there should be proper recognition downtown. Carrie Shepherd / WBEZ

Both the Grant Park and Arrigo Park statues were vandalized last month. Statues of Columbus have also been toppled or vandalized in other U.S. cities as protesters have called for the removal of statues of Columbus, saying that he is responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native peoples in the Americas.

A lifelong Chicagoan and 15-year resident of the Little Italy neighborhood, Lawrence Segers said removing the Columbus statue from Arrigo Park was “a significant mistake.” On Friday, in the promenade in Arrigo Park where the Columbus statue had previously been, red, green and white ribbons representing the Italian flag hung on the fence surrounding the now-empty pedestal.

Segers added that removing the Columbus statue from Arrigo Park is different than removing it from Grant Park. “This is their neighborhood,” he said about the park on South Loomis Street. “This was about their ethnicity; this was about their heritage; they were proud of Christopher Columbus.” Segers thinks this action will cost the mayor politically.

Pasquale Gianni of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans said the mayor had told him before their removal that both statues would be moved and temporarily housed elsewhere for public safety reasons.

“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 told WLS-TV.

Lightfoot and the city planned to announce a process “to assess each of the monuments, memorials, and murals across Chicago’s communities, and develop a framework for creating a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity,” the mayor’s office added in its statement.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 38th Ward, is Italian American and has been a vocal opponent of removing the Columbus statues. He released a statement supporting the mayor’s decision to temporarily remove both statues, but reaffirmed his position that the statues “continue to be prominently displayed because of their historical significance of the Columbus legacy and symbol of the many contributions of Italians to our city and country.”

Lawrence Segers Columbus statue reaction
In Little Italy, Lawrence Segers said he was at the statue until 3 am and “only one person” wanted it down. He called the removal “an insult to the neighborhood,” and said it was a “significant mistake” by mayor Lightfoot. WBEZ

In an interview with WBEZ, Sposato said there was a “Back The Blue” rally planned for Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Columbus statue in Grant Park and rumors there would also be a counter protest against the police.

“I’m guessing they expect a real s*** show down there, and they figured maybe, maybe [removing the statue] will calm some things down,” he said. “We can’t have our police there every night, every weekend.”

Sposato said he didn’t know when the statues might be put back up, but guessed it would not be this summer because “things are too hot and crazy right now.”

“We know what happened last Friday,” Sposato added. “Do we want to see somebody get killed over this? No, but I also don’t want to give in to these, you know, domestic terrorists either.”

The removals come amid a plan by President Donald Trump to dispatch federal law enforcement agents to the city to respond to gun violence, prompting worries that the surge will inhibit residents’ ability to hold demonstrations. A collection of activist groups had filed suit Thursday, seeking to block federal agents to combat violent crime from interfering in or policing protests.

State officials in Oregon had sued for similar requests following the arrival of federal law enforcement due to nearly two months of protests in Portland since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Reaction from other Chicago aldermen on the mayor’s overnight move was swift and varied on social media and in released statements.

Aldermen aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America released a statement this morning applauding the removal of the statues.

“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 statement read.

It was signed by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, Ald. Rossanna Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd Ward, Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez, 25th Ward, Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward, and Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward.

Rodrigez Sanchez wrote a simple “Bye Columbus” after posting several videos of workers taking the statue down overnight. La Spata also cheered the move: “To quote Queen Isabella, ‘Bye Columbus!’”

But Ray Lopez, 15th Ward, a frequent critic of the mayor, decried the middle-of-the-night action.

“What has become of Chicago? We have a mayor forced into submission by anarchy & mob-rule? No more public process, official discourse, or on-the-record debate. The lesson learned is that if you want action from Lightfoot, show up en mass at her house & she will cave every time.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, shared a WBEZ story about the mass shooting at a South Side funeral Tuesday night with the caption: “Compare the number of officers here to the ones that were protecting a statue of Columbus and you’ll see why removing it is the right call.”

WBEZ reporters Becky Vevea and Carrie Shepherd contributed.