Crews remove box covering Columbus statue in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Crews have removed the plywood box that had been placed over a Philadelphia statue of Christopher Columbus that saw tense standoffs in 2020 between supporters of the monument and opponents who viewed it as a symbol of white supremacy.

The box was removed Sunday night, as a small crowd of statue supporters cheered. The work came two days after a state judge ordered the box’s removal, saying that if the city disagrees with the “message” the statue sends, it can add its own plaque with what it wants to convey.

The statue has been the subject of a long-running dispute between the city and the Friends of Marconi Plaza, where the likeness stands. It dates to 1876 and was presented to the city by the Italian American community to commemorate the nation’s centennial, according to the 16-page ruling from the state’s Commonwealth Court.

Supporters say they consider Columbus an emblem of the deep Italian heritage in the city. George Bochetto, an attorney who represents the Friends of Marconi Plaza, said he was “delighted” by the ruling, telling WPVI-TV in a statement that “we are not a society ruled by cancel culture mobs” and that “all ethnic groups can proudly protect and honor their diverse heritages.”

Kevin Lessard, spokesperson for Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, said Friday that the ruling disappointed officials.

“We will also continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds,” Lessard said.

Kenney has said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.

In May 2020, protesters across the nation rallied against police brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Some in Philadelphia turned their focus to the Columbus statue, arguing the explorer’s actions should not be celebrated. In response, supporters of the statue began gathering around it — some carrying guns or baseball bats — and said they intended to protect it from vandals.

Around that time, statues of the Italian explorer were removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware, while protesters in Richmond, Virginia, tore down a Columbus statue, set it on fire and threw it into a lake.

Kenney called for the Philadelphia statue’s removal, arguing it was a matter of public safety, and a city arts panel and historical commission in 2020 both agreed to move forward with the statue’s removal.

But a judge last year reversed the city’s decision, saying it had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public.

The box covering the statue had been painted in green, white and red bands, mirroring the Italian flag, at the request of the city council member who represents the district.

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