We need to throw the Chris Columbus statue in the trash and surprise surprise the city's not going to do that
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Today we’re talking about the Chris Columbus statue outside Union Station. The one that got soaked in blood and tagged with a nice big “GENOCIDE” about a week ago, and the one that is yet again facing calls for its removal.
Here’s the thing about Christopher Columbus: He’s basically the Confederate flag of the North, and if that statement seems outlandish or offensive to you, keep reading, because I’m going to do my best to break it down clearly.
But first, let’s catch up with the political situation. City Councilor Sarai Rivera, who has long expressed her complete disdain for the statue, has called on the Worcester Redevelopment Authority to remove the statue. The right wing of the City Council, which is like ~80 percent of the City Council, has already reacted poorly to this.
Donna Colorio, a true reactionary, got absolutely torqued in this online poll in which she tried to make the issue about “heritage.”
Can’t win em all, Colorio. She deleted it, by the way. It’s almost like she didn’t want to know what the people thought unless it confirmed her position? Hm.
Kate Toomey, the one who assessed the current political moment and threw her unequivocal support behind the Worcester Police Department, said this unintelligible garbage on Facebook. I can’t even bring myself to type it out, so I’ll just share the screenshot.
Come again, Kate?
So we basically know how this is going to play out. People who understand racism vs. people who willfully do not. And in Worcester the people who willfully do not understand racism comprise a depressingly powerful coalition.
As for the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, that’s just not going to happen. I talked to chairman Vincent Pedone on the phone yesterday, and he told me the WRA has no jurisdiction. The statue was a gift, he said, and it’s not even on WRA property, though WRA generally controls what goes on at Union Station. This is disappointing, obviously. There are good people on the WRA, and the conversation has a much better chance of going anywhere on that board than it does on the City Council. But with a swift and true punt from the WRA, the fate of the statue goes back cityside. I reached out to a press person in the City Manager’s Office to see if he has any interest in picking it up, and I got this rather curt reply: “I take all City Council items seriously. If the Council sends an item to me, I will certainly look at it and give it careful consideration.”
So that’s where we are, and it sucks. The likelihood of this going through the City Council is close to zero. As with the budget, the council will yet again prove that it’s great at one thing, and that one thing is sitting on its hands.
Now, let’s get into my earlier claim that Christopher Columbus is the Confederate flag of the North. The analogue here is the bad-faith claim that this is about “heritage.” It may have been at one time, but that argument doesn’t hold water in the current moment, as so much has been done to peel back the layers of revisionism that took Columbus from a mediocre sailor and brutal slaver to an American hero and ultimately a symbol of Italian-American heritage. To appreciate history is to confront it, and that is precisely why pushes to remove statues are important. To say otherwise is to twist the idea into the absurd, leaving you holding on to a polemic that flatly reads as racist.
Back during the days of the Revolutionary War, Americans went searching for a hero that had no ties to Britain, and that was really hard, seeing as Britain basically controlled the entire world at that point. So they found a historical figure who at that time was so obscure he could be made into a sort of blank slate. Here’s Ed Burmila, a historian and writer and podcaster over at Gin and Tacos, in a 2017 analysis that ran in The Nation.
The American Revolution created the Columbus most of us over the age of 30 learned in grade school. Prior to the late 18th century, he was a historical footnote with no connection to the 13 colonies. An Italian, he sailed under a Spanish flag and landed in no part of the modern-day mainland United States. Yet when the need to develop a national history with no discernible connection to Britain arose during the Revolution, early Americans seized upon him. He was a blank slate on whom post-Revolution Americans could project the virtues they wanted to see in their new nation. Then, as now, the process of writing Columbus was one of defining what it means to be American.
Further, he writes that the politics of the American Revolution made it such that those with better claims for “discovering” America were disqualified. Henry Hudson and Giovanni Caboto both sailed for Britain, and on and on down the list, until they found the one guy obscure enough to be safe. It didn’t matter that he kidnapped a native woman and allowed his crew to rape her. It didn’t matter that at his colony, crew members would cut the ears off misbehaving slaves to send a message. It didn’t matter that the island he colonized was subject to a population reduction of 300,000 to 500 natives in the 50 years after he landed. Some heritage!
From here, it was a concerted effort across all of America’s fledgling society to make Columbus into something he was not. The genocidal brutality he rained upon Caribbean slaves while toiling away in relative obscurity was replaced with his go-it-alone bootstraps spirit — a righteous rebel rejecting Europe. It worked for a couple centuries, but since the 1990s or so, the myth of Columbus has been significantly chipped away, and all proponents are left with is this idea that well, you know, he may have been a bad man, but he’s a symbol of Italian-American heritage, so we can’t just “erase that history.”
Columbus became a symbol for Italian-Americans precisely because history was erased. Now we’re un-erasing it. That’s the whole point. History has shown Columbus to be a low-grade player in settler colonialism, the system on which the horrors of native genocide and chattel slavery were predicated. We look at the Confederate flag and we rightly see it as a symbol of racism. The South fought the North to keep the slaves. Columbus represents the means by which the U.S. came to have slaves. They are very, very similar concepts.
Ignoring that, the Italian-American heritage argument has some validity, insofar as, in many cities, it was Italian-Americans who built those statues in an effort to establish themselves as a part of the community that you should no longer be racist towards and hey, Columbus was Italian and everyone seems to like him. Yes, the Italians did have it bad. Yes, they were not considered white until the mid-20th century. Yes, their history has analogues to other downtrodden and despised immigrant groups.
The Worcester statue is no different. An inscription on the statue reads “this statue is erected in behalf of the Italian community of Worcester.” It was designed by Aldo Gatti, and donated by Nunziato Fusaro, in memory of his beloved wife.
But you have to ask yourself, if you really love your Italian heritage, how can you allow this man to be a symbol of it? He was a brutal colonizer who raped, pillaged and killed the locals in his colony. He insisted until his death that he was not actually in America but in Asia. He wasn’t even remembered until the Founding Fathers ran out of other people they could safely mythologize out of whole cloth. Of all the Italians, and of all the Italian-American immigrants, why would you want to honor a man whom history is coming around to correctly identify as a bad navigator and a low-grade slaver and little else? Is that who you really want?
And think, if you can, about how someone from Puerto Rico, or anywhere else in the Caribbean, feels about this man. They see a statue of someone who enslaved and brutalized their ancestors, and they should rightly feel mad about that.
Sarai Rivera put it plainly to me on the phone the other day.
“It’s a symbol of hate, not heritage,” she said. “As a Latina, as an indigenous person, has anyone ever thought about asking how I feel about it? It’s all about one heritage but no one cares about the other.”
All across the country, these statues are coming down, and for good reason. Let’s not let the enemies of progress win yet another battle here in Worcester. Let’s get this statue gone and start thinking about something that better represents the proud Italian-American population on the East Side. Something that doesn’t represent the brutal colonialism other communities in this city suffer from to this day.
We don’t remember our history by keeping statues up, we remember it by tearing them down.
Here’s a few other things to keep on your radar:
Despite the City Council whiffing on the budget and accomplishing nothing at all, Defund WPD is still going strong. Doug Arbetter filed several agenda items on the City Council meeting tonight, and people are going to call in. The City Manager is also being evaluated, which is a typically a massive dog and pony show that isn’t worth watching, but it gives you a chance to call in and let the council know how you feel about him.
Also, I am super super excited to announce that we have a new player in the independent media game here in Worcester. The Worcester Beacon has arrived. I am going to do a full post introducing the site like a debutant at the ball later this week, but for now let me say that these are very good, smart people who care a whole lot about Worcester. They ran a great piece today from Doug Arbetter, in the above item, explaining his reasoning for the petitions he filed. Bookmark that page and stay tuned!
That’s all for now, folks. As always, thank you for reading and you are all my sweet baby angels. If you read this newsletter for free, I love that, but maybe ask yourself, what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever spent $5 on, and is this really any dumber than that?