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Permanent Removal Of Columbus Statues Would Be A Victory For Indigenous Groups, But Italian Americans Vow To Keep Fighting

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she "fully expects" the Columbus statue to return the Grant Park — but the city's monuments committee recommended they not be restored.

Crews remove the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park the morning of July 24, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Indigenous leaders are praising a group’s recommendation against restoring controversial Christopher Columbus statues to Chicago’s public spaces, while some Italian-American leaders insist the move isn’t final.

The city removed Grant Park’s Columbus statue in July 2020 after protesters tried to pull down the monument. Columbus statues in Arrigo Park and on East 92nd Street also were removed. Their fate has remained unclear since then, though a council to review the statues and other monuments recently recommended they not be restored, according to the Sun-Times.

The city created a monuments committee in August 2020 as debate raged over what should happen to the Columbus statues. Its members looked at every public memorial to determine if they were problematic and, if so, what should be done with them. Its work was mired in secrecy and delays, though members flagged dozens of monuments — including the three Columbus statues — as potentially problematic.

Then, in an unexpected move last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she “fully expects” to return the controversial Columbus statue to Grant Park. Several members of the monuments committee were blindsided, the Tribune reported.

After the mayor’s comments, the Sun-Times’ report revealed the council had recommended sidelining all three of the city’s Columbus statues — and removing the Balbo Monument in Burnham Park. That monument honors an Italian fascist leader. That report has not yet been made public.

Those recommendations are a relief, said Les Begay, a member of the Diné Nation, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois and long a volunteer for the American Indian Center.

Begay met with mayoral representatives after Lightfoot’s comments about returning the statue to Grant Park, and her aides assured him it was “the monuments committee’s call” about what to do with the statues, he said.

“I’m really hoping that what was released as a speculation is truth. I have faith that is what’s going to happen,” Begay said.

But those who support bringing back the monuments feel differently.

The monuments council doesn’t “make decisions; we just make recommendations,” said Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), who is Italian American and serves on the 30-member monuments committee.

Pasquale Gianni, president of Avanti Group of Young Italian Americans, said none of the monument committee’s recommendations are binding.

“I’m not undermining the task that they were ultimately given,” Gianni said. “I think the makeup of that commission … there were a great number of people that were predispositioned to be anti-Columbus.”

Instead of removing Columbus statues and other monuments, Gianni thinks the city should instead erect plaques that acknowledge “differing interpretations of those legacies,” he said.

Gianni thinks a similar approach can be taken for the other dozens of statues flagged last year by the monuments committee for possibly being problematic.

Permanently removing the Columbus statues would be a “slap in the face” for Italian Americans, Gianni said. His organization remains hopeful Lightfoot will return them, he said.

“Let’s not let’s not delve into subtraction. … We should be in the business of addition,” Gianni said.

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, released a statement saying the organization “would not rest” until the statues are returned.

“No negotiations about this, folks,” Onesti said.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about who will have final say over the fate of the statues.

The city’s process has “not been about a single statue or mural, but about creating a formal process that will reflect our values and elevate our rich history and diversity,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Ensuring that our city’s symbols represent inclusivity and uplift the stories of Chicago remain paramount.”

If the city does follow the recommendation, Begay hopes the city will take the “natural next step” and change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day – something he and other community organizers have advocating for years, he said. Lightfoot has previously resisted that change.

The monuments committee’s report will be released in coming weeks, city officials said.

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