Group sues Philadelphia mayor, officials over Columbus statue removal efforts

A group that fought in court to keep a statue of Christopher Columbus in a south Philadelphia park and to have a wooden box covering it removed has now filed suit against Mayor Jim Kenney and members of the city's historical commission over their roles in the effort to remove the statue.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Friends of Marconi Plaza allege in the complaint filed late last month that officials conspired to abuse the legal process in trying to remove the 146-year-old statue from Marconi Plaza after it became the scene of tense standoffs during demonstrations and unrest over racial injustice in the summer of 2020.

RELATED COVERAGE: Judge rules Christopher Columbus statue can remain in South Philadelphia

George Bochetto, the lead attorney for the group, said he sees the suit as holding government officials accountable.

"Frankly, it’s shocking what took place here, and it’s a shocking disregard for their responsibilities," Bochetto said.

Representatives of the mayor and the historical commission declined comment last week on the lawsuit.

The 1876 statue was presented to the city by the Italian American community to commemorate the nation’s centennial. Many Italian Americans have embraced the 15th century explorer — once hailed as the discoverer of America — as a cultural hero and emblem of the city’s deep Italian heritage. But Kenney has said that despite centuries of veneration, Columbus had a "much more infamous" history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing harsh punishments.

In May 2020, during protests across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some in Philadelphia turned their focus to the Columbus statue, arguing the explorer should not be celebrated. In response, supporters of the statue began gathering around it — some carrying guns or baseball bats — and said they intended to protect it from vandals. Around that time, statues of the Italian explorer were removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware, while protesters in Richmond, Virginia, tore down a Columbus statue, set it on fire and threw it into a lake.

Kenney called for the Philadelphia statue’s removal, arguing it was a matter of public safety. A city arts panel and historical commission both agreed and a plywood box was erected to cover the statue. A judge, however, reversed the city’s decision, saying it had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public.

In December, the plywood box covering the statue was removed at the order of a state judge who said that if the city disagrees with its "message" officials can add a plaque with their message. Before its removal, the box had been painted in the green, white and red bands of the Italian flag at the request of the city council member who represents the district.

The Friends of Marconi Plaza also filed a lawsuit over the mayor's renaming of the city’s Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something the suit alleges discriminated against Italian Americans. A court dismissed the suit and a federal appeals court upheld that dismissal; Bochetto’s firm has appealed the U.S. Supreme Court.