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Activists gather in Little Italy to call for return of Columbus statues 3 years after removal

As calls to shift the focus of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day have intensified in recent years, a group of activists in Chicago has increased their demands for Christopher Columbus statues to be reinstalled.

About 100 people gathered in Arrigo Park in Little Italy on Monday to celebrate Columbus, recognize his legacy for Italian-Americans and support the return of the statues.

The statues in Arrigo Park and Grant Park were removed in 2020 after activists’ attempts to remove them devolved into clashes with police amid the nationwide racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the statues removed days later.

City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Those who oppose the statues say Columbus’ unsavory record of violence toward Indigenous people is represented in monuments in his honor, while supporters say they represent Italian heritage and culture.

“It’s about respect,” said Ron Onesti, president of the Chicago branch of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans. “We believe in Indigenous people having their holidays, why take ours away?”

The rally for the reinstating of the statues preceded the annual Columbus Day Parade downtown Monday afternoon. After a few speeches celebrating Italian culture and heritage and a prayer, the group placed a wreath near a World War II monument and held a moment of silence for veterans.

Activists place a wreath by a World War II memorial in Arrigo Park, where a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed in 2020.

Activists place a wreath by a World War II memorial in Arrigo Park where a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed in 2020.

While the rally was held on Columbus Day and included calling for statues of him to be resurrected, Onesti said the day was about more than just one person.

“It’s about our heritage and our culture,” he said.

“If we’re going to judge anybody who lived 600 years ago by today’s standards, there’s a lot to talk about. To attach any one person to it is ridiculous,” Onesti said.

Last year’s rally drew some attention from protesters who oppose the statues, but this year Onesti said he didn’t see any.

The statues were originally removed “temporarily” under Lightfoot, but the parameters of when they would return were left unclear.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office wouldn’t say whether the statues will be reinstalled, only that “the parties are engaged in settlement discussions.” The city recently received a grant that will fund monuments on the topics of “labor, civil rights, racial justice and other areas that represent our diversity, honor our history and tell our story,” a statement from the mayor’s office said.

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