Right before Philadelphia’s second annual celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day today, October 10, city officials painted a green plywood box covering a controversial Christopher Columbus statue with the colors of the Italian flag. Philadelphia and its residents have been at odds over the fate of the statue, installed in the city’s Marconi Plaza, over the last two years.
The Italian-American community gifted the Columbus statue to the city for the Centennial Exposition in 1876. A hundred years later, it was moved to Marconi Plaza, where it stood uncovered until 2020, when colonial and Confederate statues were graffitied by protesters and subjected to city-sanctioned removal at the height of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. A statue of Frank Rizzo, the former Philadelphia mayor and ex-police commissioner known for his divisive and racist rhetoric and tough-on-crime approach, was removed from the steps of the Municipal Public Services building across from City Hall in June 2020 after it was painted over one too many times.
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Fearing that the Columbus statue would meet the same demise, armed vigilantes headed to Marconi Plaza to “protect” the sculpture from protestors who were organizing in the park. After violence broke out at the scene, Mayor Jim Kenney ordered board up the statue as a matter of public safety and initiated the removal process with the Philadelphia Arts Council later that summer. While the statue has remained in the box, the removal was halted when a local volunteer organization for the park, Friends of Marconi Plaza, filed a lawsuit to keep the statue up in the historically Italian-American neighborhood.
City officials complied with Squilla’s request to paint the plywood box to represent the Italian flag just before Philadelphia’s annual Italian Heritage parade at Marconi Plaza on Sunday, October 9. Mabel Negrete, executive director of Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly, Inc., told the Inquirer it was “unfortunate” that some Italian Americans in the city continued to celebrate Columbus. The painting of the box in colors of the Italian flag, she said, “undermines intentions to move forward.”
Social media users have also been dunking on the box’s new makeover. When a TikTok covering the box’s paint job started circulating on the app and Twitter, commenters began roasting the symbolic effort from Squilla. Several Tiktok and Twitter users noted that the flag’s shade of green was incorrect, stating that it resembled the flags of Hungary, Iran, and Mexico rather than that of Italy. TikTok user @drhichrism joked that the flag was intentionally painted “Philadelphia Phillies green, Eagles red, and cream cheese white.”
In January of 2021, Mayor Kenney issued an executive order to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, stating that it was an opportunity to “recognize and teach about the atrocities that have occurred to Indigenous people through colonialism.” Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto sued the mayoral administration on behalf of Councilman Squilla and dozens of Italian-American heritage groups, arguing that the decision was at the front of a “long line of divisive, anti-Italian American discriminatory actions” previously undertaken by Kenney.
Councilman Squilla expressed his disappointment with Kenney’s decision through a press release that was posted on Twitter, referencing historical discrimination toward the Italian-American community from the New Orleans lynching incident to the persecutions of veterans after World War II. He clarified via Twitter comments that while he is in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a concept and recognizes the infamy of Columbus’s legacy, Columbus Day has become symbolic of Italian-American heritage across the country and that replacing the holiday is more divisive than reparative. (Squilla has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
But for millions of Native American individuals across the country, the shift toward Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an exciting first step in the United States’s acknowledgment of Indigenous strife from and perseverance through the violence and indoctrination of colonialism. David Weeden, a tribal historic preservation officer of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, said the holiday is the perfect opportunity for reflection.
“It’s a time to reflect on all that we’ve been through as a people: How much we endured, how much we’ve persevered and how much we still have to continue to fight for — for ourselves, for generations before us and for generations that will come after us,” he told CNN. Hopefully, the next generations will have easier access to the less sanitized history of Columbus’s expedition moving forward.