Last Friday, Chicago police braved a rabid black-bloc antifa mob to defend a statue of Christopher Columbus. Rioters threw mortars and sharpened PVC pipes into pikes, pushing back police and using umbrellas as shields in a siege reminiscent of Greek hoplite warfare. They injured forty-nine officers. Mayor Lori Lightfoot honored their sacrifice by… completely caving to rioters’ demands and removing the statue in the wee hours of Friday morning, not one week after the battle.
“The city of Chicago—at Mayor Lightfoot’s direction—has temporarily removed the Christopher Columbus statues in Grant Park and Arrigo Park until further notice,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.
Lightfoot removed the statues “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. 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. In addition, our public safety resources must be concentrated where they are most needed throughout the city, and particularly in our South and West Side communities.”
Protesters launch fireworks and other items at Chicago police officers guarding Columbus statue in Grant Park pic.twitter.com/WCga8c47Ty
— WGN TV News (@WGNNews) July 18, 2020
In other words, Lightfoot caved to the mob, removing the statue that the antifa instigators had proven unable to remove themselves. The Knights of Columbus lamented the statue’s removal in a statement to PJ Media, citing the lawless attacks on all kinds of historical monuments.
“Our society must have civil debate on these issues and not settle differences with mob violence and destruction, which we are seeing not only against Columbus but other historical figures and even American patriots like Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant,” the Knights of Columbus said in a statement.
While the vandals began by targeting Confederate monuments, they began defacing and toppling monuments commemorating America’s heroes, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Then came Mahatma Gandhi, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, black Union soldiers, and freed slave Frederick Douglass. Vandals even attacked a monument to 9/11 firefighters and painted a statue of Jesus black.
As for attacks on statues of Columbus, the antifa rioters may not like their historical predecessors. You see, anti-Catholic anti-Italian prejudice led the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to demonize the Italian explorer. The celebration of Columbus Day actually helped American diversity, integrating this Italian-American hero into America’s pantheon and encouraging acceptance of Italian-Americans.
“Columbus has been a target of white supremacists since the 1920s, when a resurgent Ku Klux Klan attacked monuments and celebrations of Columbus from coast to coast,” Patrick Korten, a member of the National Christopher Columbus Association (NCCA) board of directors, said in 2017.
“They hated that he was Mediterranean not Anglo, that he sailed for Spain, not England, that he was popular in the immigrant community, and most of all, that he was Catholic,” Korten added, noting that “Catholics, along with African Americans and Jews, were regular targets of the Klan.”
The NCCA board member warned that “the disparagement of Columbus today has its roots in a centuries-old habit of painting Italian and Hispanic immigrants in this country as cruel, violent, sexually aggressive and untrustworthy. In the context of Spanish exploration, this is known as the ‘Black Legend’ — based on propaganda peddled about Spain dating from the 16th century, which continues to be the grist for racially tinged comments about Hispanics and Italians to this day.”
Columbus Day, far from being a white supremacist celebration of a European colonizer, began as a celebration of America’s diversity. One of the catalysts for it came on March 14, 1891, when an angry New Orleans mob lynched 11 Italian immigrants after they were cleared of murder charges.
Columbus Day helped Americans recognize Italian immigrants as their fellow Americans — with a noble heritage.
Columbus Day is not a symbol of oppression, but a symbol of American pluralism, the acceptance of a new influx of Americans from Columbus’ native Italy. Just as the 13th Amendment corrected a historic American evil by abolishing slavery, so this holiday helped combat the anti-Italian prejudice behind a horrific lynching.
The Columbus statue the antifa mob targeted dates back to 1933, when Chicago celebrated its 100th anniversary with the Century of Progress World’s Fair. The Windy City’s Italian-American community raised the funds for the statue.
When Chicago police defended that noble monument to the Genovese explorer, they were laying their lives on the line to protect the city’s heritage against a destructive and violent mob. The mob may consider Columbus a symbol of oppression today, but that statue was a sign of remarkable inclusion at the time — and its removal is a terrifying sign of weakness before an angry mob.
Lightfoot likely had the noblest of intentions in deciding to remove the statue, but whatever her intent, her decision to cave to the antifa mob sends a chilling message. Racial minorities who faced hostility in America will find their monuments demonized by a violent mob and removed in the name of public safety.
In Chicago last week, antifa struck a victory for mob rule and a powerful defeat for true inclusion, all in the name of racial justice. The mob left dozens of police officers wounded and made the city less safe for the law-abiding citizens who have fewer cops to defend them. Make no mistake, Lightfoot’s removal of this statue is a grave tragedy.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.