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New London council votes to make Columbus removal permanent

New London — The nationwide debate on the appropriateness of memorializing 15th century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, against the backdrop of nationwide protests against racism, has reached New London.

The City Council voted 6-0 late Tuesday to remove the statue not only from Columbus Square at the corner of Bank and Blinman streets, but from display in any public property in the city. Councilor John Satti was not on the line when the vote was taken.

The New London Police Department also announced Tuesday evening that it would not be pursuing charges in the "incidents of criminal mischief" during demonstrations on June 6, when the statue, a police substation and a cruiser were spray-painted. "As an agency, we believe this is the right thing to do in order to move forward in a positive direction along with our community," the department said on its Facebook page. "We must all work together for the good and the advancement of our City."

Councilor Curtis Goodwin has organized a “Columbus Removal Rally and George Floyd Moment of Silence” to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Columbus Square.

“We must continue to bring change!” Goodwin wrote in a Facebook post. “We must continue to speak up and loudly. Wednesday, let’s take a moment to reflect and support the permanent removal of the Christopher Columbus statue. These lands are home to many (black) indigenous peoples. New London’s history should make us all proud to stand in this moment; that’s if we tell it accurately and if it’s inclusive. Be the change in your community. Be sure black lives matter. Our voices shall continue to be heard. And change will continue, because it must, and it shall.”

The statue’s future was debated Tuesday at one of the most well-attended City Council meetings in recent history. The Zoom meeting reached capacity at 100 people at one point, prompting council President Efrain Dominguez to request some to log off to give others a chance to speak.

Nearly 50 people signed up to speak and many others submitted letters to be read for the record — the overwhelming majority advocating for the statue’s removal.

“It is not a representation of what New London stands for. We stand for diversity, for embracing each other,” 18-year-old Yamilla Mateo said. “Unfortunately, that statue does not unite us. It divides.”

“It’s a symbol of hate, injustice and inequality,” Kelly Henriques said in a letter to the council. “We want to move forward with symbols of justice, harmony, peace + love.”

“A couple of years ago we decided to stop celebrating Columbus Day and replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day. We got rid of the day ... that is because we know there is a history behind that we do not stand by as a city,” said Shineika Fareus, whose group, Hearing Youth Voices, has a petition for removal of the statue, among a list of other demands.

Lisa Crowley, who noted that she has an emotional and cultural connection with her Italian heritage, wrote that "I have ZERO connection to a statue of a man who was, by any measure, a horrific example of a human being."

"Christopher Columbus 'the myth' has little to do with Christopher Columbus the reality. He did not 'discover' North America, never set foot here," Crowley said. "What did he do? Things that would make your stomach turn, they were so vicious and inhumane, to the native peoples of the place he did land in the Caribbean. The statue does nothing to honor my heritage, and it's a slap in the face to black and brown people here and everywhere." 

Some Italian Americans argue that the statue in New London should not be equated with the memorials to Confederate soldiers seen as symbols of hate and oppression. The statue was a gift to the city from Italian Americans in the city in 1928 and still a source of pride from a group that was historically marginalized.

Proponents of the statue’s removal look at Columbus as a symbol of the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and his legacy forever linked with the killing and enslavement of indigenous people. Much of Columbus' history taught to previous generations is a "white-washed myth," one person commented.

Mayor Michael Passero abruptly removed and warehoused the 91-year-old statue earlier this week to protect it from further vandalism. It had been spray-painted several times since the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis set off protests nationwide, including one here in New London. Passero said he feared it would be permanently damaged as others across the county have been. He also said he would abide by the wishes of the residents and City Council.

Some, like NAACP President Jean Jordan, have offered that it should be moved to a private site like the Italian Dramatic Club or a museum like the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

Dan Onofrio of Shelton, president of the Sons & Daughters of Italy Connecticut Grand Lodge Foundation, appeared before the council twice this week, not for a debate on Columbus’ history but as a representative of the thousands of Italians Americans outraged by the treatment of Columbus.

“It’s hard not to take it as a personal attack on our ancestors,” he said. “They endured quite a bit to assimilate to life here in America, so much so that they were deemed an ethnic group with federal minority status.”

Several people noted that the Columbus statue debate is a distraction from the larger issues.

"If this is the focus right now, then we are already so far behind in addressing what issues are at hand," Joseph Rivera said. "These social studies discussions have become beyond redundant. City Council, please respond to the outcry ... and lay this issue to rest by finalizing the decision to remove this statue of Columbus so we can move on and continue to address the issues of socioeconomic disparity and violent forms of oppression."

g.smith@theday.com

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