Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick issued an order on Friday that Mayor Jim Kenney and the city of Philadelphia must remove the plywood box covering a statue of Christopher Columbus. The 144-year-old statue was covered up due to protests that the explorer represents racial injustice and abuse. Other Columbus statues have been destroyed, including one in Baltimore. When asked about that destruction, Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugged and said “people will do what they do.” For his part, Kenney has announced that his administration will appeal the ruling in an effort to keep Columbus covered from public view.
Kenney’s spokesperson declared that keeping the statue from being seen is “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians.”
Patrick previously ruled that the statue could remain in the plaza and called the effort to remove it “baffling.” She also found that the city had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public, calling the confrontations “isolated civil unrest.”
What is worrisome is whether protesters will now view the court’s opinion as an enticement to show that the protests were not “isolated” and renew efforts to destroy the artwork. Previously, an Antifa leader located at George Washington University declared “we are winning” after efforts to topple historical monuments in Washington. He might be right. Indeed, academics have joined the calls for removing a wide array of statues to historical figures and some have even joined in efforts to destroy or deface them.
Many agree with the criticism of Columbus as a historical figure, criticisms raised particularly by the Native American community that he is a genocidal figure. Columbus and other statues have been removed in cities like Chicago.
I have long opposed the sweeping efforts to dismantle or destroy historical monuments and statues. (Here and here and here and here and here and here and here) While I recognize that there are some statues that should be removed, my primary objection is to the lack of a public debate over how we should address these calls. Instead, mobs have been destroying or defacing statues. In Washington, police made the “tactical decision” to stand by and watch a mob destroy a statue.
As I have previously written, there are statues that should be removed but it is important that such decisions are made collectively and with circumspection:
Two decades ago, I wrote a column calling for the Georgia legislature to take down its statue of Tom Watson, a white supremacist publisher and politician who fueled racist and antisemitic movements. Watson was best known for his hateful writings, including his opposition to save Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of raping and murdering a girl. Frank was taken from a jail and lynched by a mob enraged by such writings, including the declaration of Watson that “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working class Gentile.”
Yet today there is no room or time for such reasoned discourse, just destruction that often transcends any rationalization of history.
The court’s rulings puts it at odds with the city licensing board that upheld a July 2020 decision by the city historical commission to remove the statue. Such decisions are usually given great deference and the appellate court may consider this within the authority of the commission even if it disagrees with the basis for the action. However, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the park, and America 500 Anniversary Corporation, have an agreement with the city that they insist was violated by Kenney’s actions.
So the fight will now move to the appellate courts.