As activists in several U.S. cities pull down and damage memorials to Christopher Columbus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo voiced support Thursday for a statue of the explorer in Manhattan.
In recent years, critics who point to evidence of Columbus’ brutality toward indigenous peoples have called for New York City to remove his 70-foot-tall statue standing atop a column in Columbus Circle.
Some have suggested that New York rename Columbus Day and call it Indigenous People’s Day, arguing that commemorating Columbus glorifies a symbol of genocide and enslavement and glosses over history.
Those calls have been renewed in many cities in the wake of nationwide protests against racism following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Italian American groups, however, have used memorials to Columbus, who was from Genoa, as a way to celebrate their own heritage. The Manhattan statue was put up in 1892 as the Italian American community attempted to overcome prejudice and assimilate into American society.
Cuomo, who is Italian American, defended the statue Thursday while saying he understands ongoing dialogue surrounding it.
“I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support. But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York,” Cuomo said. “So for that reason I support it.”
His remark comes amid a growing push for the nation to reconsider who is honored and reckon with oppression and violence committed by national icons.
The colonizer is at times credited with “discovering” the New World though millions lived there, said Onondaga Nation citizen Betty Lyons, who also leads the American Indian Law Alliance. Columbus never landed on what’s now known as the continental United States and faced accusations of tyranny and enslavement toward the native residents of a Caribbean colony he governed for Spain.
“Governor Cuomo’s eloquence in response to the anti-racism movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd apparently does not extend to the genocide and enslavement those first transatlantic voyages initiated and which continue to underpin the oppression of indigenous peoples to this day,” Lyons said.
In 2017, vandals doused the Columbus statue’s hands in blood-red paint and scrawled the words “hate will not be tolerated.” On Thursday night, the statue was being guarded by the NYPD and completely surrounded by barricades to prevent any more vandalism.
A statue of Columbus in Boston was beheaded earlier this week, while in Richmond, Virginia, a statue was torn down and set on fire. A statue in St. Paul, Minnesota, saw a similar fate, as protesters tied a rope around it's neck and brought it down, kicking the head and dancing around it afterward.
Some in the city agreed that the famed statue should come down.
"I think it's past time. My father's Native American, and I've always been aware of Columbus' history — the true history that he was a rapist and a murderer," said Gabe Friedman, who has started a new petition to bring the statue down and rename Columbus Circle. "I felt like now was really the best time for it, while we have momentum."
A 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue led New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to launch a commission that evaluated how to deal with controversial sculptures including the Columbus statue.
The commission recommended adding historical markers to give more context.
In New York City, Democratic lawmakers have called on the military to rename two streets — General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive — at Fort Hamilton, an Army base in Brooklyn.
They wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper that soldiers “deserve to serve on bases that honor their ancestors’ contributions to our nation, not those who fought to hold those same ancestors in bondage.”
De Blasio said Thursday: “Nothing should be named after Robert E. Lee at this point in history.”