GRANT PARK — Statues of Christopher Columbus in Grant and Arrigo parks were removed early Friday morning, just hours after an abrupt decision from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
In a statement hours later, Lightfoot said the statues have been “temporarily removed … until further notice” due to safety concerns.
Protests over the statues had become unsafe for protesters and police, Lightfoot said in her statement, and individuals had attempted to topple the statue in Grant Park “in an extremely dangerous manner.”
The statue in Grant Park had been the subject of high-profile protests in recent weeks — including one July 17 where police and protesters violently clashed, leaving dozens of protesters and police officers injured. At that protest, people scaled the statue, threw ropes around it and tried to pull it down.
“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,” Lightfoot said in the statement. “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.”
The statues were removed in a quick, pre-dawn operations with no announcement from the city, spawning comparisons to the secretive destruction of Meigs Field by then-Mayor Richard Daley in 2003.
Video of the statue being removed:
About 1:30 a.m. at Grant Park, trucks arrived in the southern edge of the park and crews began cutting down the fencing and bringing in heavy equipment.
About a half hour later, crews could be seen tying ropes around the statue.
Just after 3 a.m., crews successfully separated the statue from its base, lifting it away with a crane and a harness. About 3:45 a.m., a flatbed truck with the dismantled statue drove away on Roosevelt Road, to the cheers of a few dozen people.
It wasn’t clear where the statues are headed or what Lightfoot’s office means by “temporarily removed.” Calls for comment were not immediately returned.
In Lightfoot’s statement, the mayor said the city will announce in “coming days” how it will create a formal process to assess Chicago’s monuments, memorials and murals “and develop a framework for creating a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity.”
“… This is not about a single statue or mural, but how we create a platform to channel our city’s dynamic civic energy to collaboratively, purposefully and peacefully reflect our values as Chicagoans and uplift the stories of all of our diverse city’s residents, particularly when it comes to the permanent memorialization of our shared heritage,” according to the statement.
Word of the mayor’s unexpected decision to take down the 87-year-old statue came down as hundreds of people were protesting near her Logan Square home Thursday night, leading to raucous cheers and celebrations in the streets.
Lightfoot’s statement said the removal comes after “consultation with various stakeholders,” but it did not specify who the city spoke to.
Late Thursday night, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who represents Little Italy, said he didn’t know the mayor planned to take down the Columbus statue in Arrigo Park.
“… There was no consultation or communication with the community about that,” Ervin said.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) told Block Club he was notified of the planned removal Thursday. He also tweeted Friday he was not asked for his input.
The Chi-Nations Youth Council, which includes young Native American organizers who were among those who led the Grant Park protest last week, praised the decision but said it came at the cost of “our blood and beaten bodies, at the hands of Chicago Police under the demands of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”
“The people got this statue removed, the solidarity between Black and Indigenous peoples got this removed,” the group wrote in its statement. “Yet we don’t want to see this become a virtue signal. We want meaningful ways to address the harm caused by this structure that does not value the lives of Indigenous, Black and Brown peoples.”
The move to take down the statue came on the heels of weeks of increased pressure from local organizers, community leaders and City Council members to remove symbols, monuments and other honorifics in the city memorializing figures of white supremacy.
Though many have pushed for years to remove such statutes and symbolism throughout the U.S., that activism gained renewed momentum during national demonstrations against police violence and systemic racism after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.
Columbus — born in Genoa, Italy, and whose explorations were sponsored by the Spanish monarchy — has long been touted as the man who “discovered” America on Oct. 12, 1492. That distinction has made him a hero among many Italian Americans.
But historians have noted Native Americans populated the area before Columbus arrived, and his actions led to mass genocide, rape and torture of Indigenous people.
The Grant Park statue, sculpted by Carl Brioschi, was erected in 1933 as part of the city’s celebration of A Century of Progress, the city’s second World’s Fair.
The statue, as well as one in Arrigo Park, has long been the subject of protests and has been defaced numerous times over the years.
Lightfoot resisted taking down the statues as recently as late June, saying they could be used to teach people about the history of the United States.
The demand to remove the statues hit a climax last week when a protest in solidarity of Black and Indigenous people brought demonstrators to the southern end of Grant Park. A group within the rally swarmed the statue and pelted bicycle cops guarding it with bottles, fireworks and other projectiles. Lightfoot said the group “hijacked” the protest. Police called it a coordinated ambush and showed a video of some in the rally changing into all black and leaving projectiles on the ground for others to throw.
Someone then scaled the 33-foot-tall statue and put ropes around it in an attempt to topple it.
Police officers swarmed the scene, using pepper spray to push protesters away from the statue. The groups clashed, leaving protesters and police officers injured.
In the aftermath, Lightfoot blamed “vigilantes” for escalating the situation. She urged patience, saying the city would conduct a comprehensive review of Chicago’s monuments.
Another protest earlier this week demanding the removal of the statue shut down traffic in the South Loop for several hours.
It was that relentless activism, organizers say, that finally forced the mayor’s hand.
The removal — temporary or permanent — was the second time this week city leaders acceded to organizers who demanded changes to who is honored on city property.
Earlier this week, Chicago Park District board members unanimously voted to start the process to change the name of Douglas Park on the West Side to Douglass Park, honoring Frederick Douglass, a Black abolitionist and formerly enslaved person.
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