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4 Perspectives on the Christopher Columbus Statues

When Chicago removed two statues last week, it did so in the middle of the night without public announcement. What does that mean for communities invested in the decision making process?

City crews remove the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on July 24. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

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Hi, readers. It’s been a week since the city of Chicago removed two statues of Christopher Columbus in the middle of the night without warning. In a statement afterward, the city said the statues were moved “in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police,” and it added that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s order to remove the statues came after receiving intelligence “of great concern.” The city didn’t offer any details about the intelligence.

As the mayor’s team works on a plan to reassess monuments, memorials and murals throughout the city, I thought it’d be worth hearing from some of the people who had a stake in the removal of the statues. Their answers have been edited for clarity.

Heather Miller: Executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago and an enrolled member of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma.

Ron Onesti: A vice president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, a group that has advocated for keeping the statues standing in public places.

Gabriel Piemonte: Founder of a new organization, the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, that has denounced the Columbus statues.

Lisa Yun Lee: A professor of public culture and museum studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago who co-chaired Lightfoot’s arts and culture transition committee.

What was your reaction when you heard the city was going to remove the Columbus monuments overnight?

Miller: It was kind of bittersweet. On one level, it was really exciting to know the statues were coming down. On the other hand, the mayor said the removals were temporary. It’s still pretty much a slap in the face. To me, it says we’re going to let racism win in this city.

Onesti: My first reaction was one of betrayal. This had been an issue for a while, and we had been in contact with the mayor, aldermen and city officials about the potential of this happening. We thought we had a healthy dialogue going and then when you find out at 3 in the morning the statue is on a flatbed trailer — that’s where the betrayal comes in. Our community was not invited to come to the table and discuss options.

Piemonte: I was thinking, “Wow, this is how [the mayor] is going to do this?” And I thought, “This is weird.” In retrospect, she did the safe thing. She did the smart political move.

Lee: Collective joy. Although I support a vibrant public process and debate, in this circumstance, there was the need for swift action and leadership in response to a people’s movement on the side of justice.

The city said it consulted with “stakeholders” to make the decision. What are the stakes to you? Were you consulted?

Miller: No one from the mayor’s office has reached out to us for conversation about how this could work out. And when we are the first people of this land, the most affected by these things, and were not brought into the conversation on any level — then why are we even doing this? It’s meaningless unless we’re going to have real honest conversations that address genocide, structural racism and white supremacy.

Onesti: It’s not about what happened at 3 a.m. last Thursday. It’s about what happens next. [The statues] commemorated and fostered our Italian heritage here in Chicago. The actual [number of] Italian Americans who live within Chicago has been diminishing on an annual basis. So another reason why this [resistance among some Italian American groups] is happening right now is because we lost that stronghold. It’s wanting to hold on to our history. If the removal needed to happen because of the political environment of the day, fine. Let’s put a da Vinci statue up there. Or one of Michelangelo.

Piemonte: I don’t think I’m considered among the stakeholders, and that’s fine. There’s been this myth of a monolithic Italian American consensus in Chicago. I created the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago in part because I’d like to see more emphasis on the fracturing of this narrative and what it means. I didn’t grow up with my dad saying, “Eat your Wheaties and you can be Columbus.” When some people say they love Columbus, they’re saying a few different things, and a lot of that is about losing that hegemony that’s creating anxiety all over the country. We know what this is. Our point is that’s not everyone, that’s not all of us.

Lee: Although the statue was physically removed overnight, it’s important to understand that the efforts to create a more inclusive and just cultural landscape is the result of activism by diverse movements over decades that have included indigenous people, feminists, scholars for social justice, Black Lives Matter and the organized actions of people demanding that our built environment reflect historical truth.

What would a transparent process look like to you?

Miller: At this point, I don’t know if a transparent process is really able to happen. We’re not going to change our position. I’m not going to say colonization and genocide hasn’t happened.

Onesti: We have a process in place. You have an issue, whether it’s a statue or a garbage can, you take it to your local representative, then to the aldermen, then to the committee, whatever it is. They have community meetings with the people involved. We talk about it. A City Council vote happens. Let’s respect the process.

Piemonte: I think you need a democratic process by which people who make decisions are selected. That can’t just be the mayor’s friends. I think she needs to have a strong academic presence because those are the people who will think about this beyond the political. But there should [also] be folks at large, because it’s about our whole city in the end. My preference would be a majority-elected group. Let the people decide.

Lee: There needs to be a vibrant public history and education campaign to accompany any process and a fundamental commitment to truth, restorative justice and healing. The process should not be siloed in any one department but could include key representatives from public safety, housing, transportation, parks and recreation, along with historians and other scholars, artists and cultural activists.

The mayor said the removal is “temporary.” What’s your ideal outcome?

Miller: I think if the city of Chicago, working in connection with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, could come up with an appropriate monument policy that addresses issues around these negative things — if they were a slave owner, if they were a conquistador, if they contributed to colonization or genocide or to slavery, maybe let’s not include them as people that we honor. Instead let’s honor folks that have done positive things to uplift this city and make it a place where we all can live together. I want to live in a city where anyone can be successful. So creating places that allow for that to happen — that don’t allow for racist imagery to be promoted across the city — is a good step in that direction.

Onesti: I don’t know if putting the Columbus statues back would ever be a safe situation at this point. I don’t know putting it back is a socially responsible position right now. Our best case scenario is, one, we are asked to the table to discuss our position and to address issues that are sensitive to our particular community like you would any other ethnic group, and, two, to actively work together for a solution. A great solution: Give us the statues. Gift it to the Italian community and then we’ll find a place. We have museums. We have an Italian cultural center. Anybody could say, “Forget Columbus, get rid of the holiday, and the Columbus parade becomes Italian Heritage Day.” Maybe we’d consider that.

Piemonte: One of the things we’re trying to do in the organization is not just be the anti-Columbus group. Part of what we would like to see is a renewed dialogue when people think about Italian American heritage in Chicago. The most vocal group of Italians does not represent all of the Italians in Chicago. We had two [Italian] restaurants on Taylor Street close because of the pandemic. Culture isn’t a statue — it’s what people do. Let’s invest in that.

Lee: Ideally, we take this opportunity to reimagine monuments and memorials that celebrate the victories of movements of people, instead of individual historical figures. Ideally, this moment should not only be about what and who we are against, but also be an opportunity to embrace what we are for. It should not just be about what we are tearing down, but also about what we can collectively build together for a more just future.

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