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Clash over Columbus boils over after statue in Little Italy joins wave of monuments targeted by protesters

After the statue was hit with graffiti over the weekend, some residents stood guard in front of Arrigo Park, where they argued with Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St. on June 15, 2020.
Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St., Monday, June 15, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Two prominent monuments to Christopher Columbus in Grant Park and on the Near West Side were hit with graffiti over the weekend, joining a number of tributes to the Italian explorer targeted by protesters around the country in recent weeks.

After the statue in Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., in Little Italy, was splattered with balloons filled with blue and pink paint Friday night, some residents stood guard at the statue over the weekend, according to videos posted to social media and several residents who asked not to be named.

“Some people in this neighborhood think it’s a statue of Jesus,” one longtime neighborhood resident said. “We have people guarding this statue with golf clubs — or worse. We don’t need that.”

She said the neighborhood, long home to many Italian immigrants and their families but also to a growing diverse population, “really is divided. A lot of people believe he is a great guy who discovered America. And others say he helped kill a race of people.”

“Honestly, I don’t think they know the history and I think they are just reacting stupidly,” said one woman, a 31-year resident of the area, who said she guarded the statue with dozens of others. She worries those that want to see the statue come down could try to forcefully remove it.

The Christopher Columbus statue at Roosevelt Road and Columbus Drive, sits defaced with red paint, Monday, June 15, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Battle playing out nationwide

Similar scenes have played out across the nation as people reevaluate memorials that honor controversial figures.

A Columbus statue was beheaded in Boston last week.

A separate Columbus statue in Chicago, just west of the Shedd Aquarium, was also defaced over the weekend with the letters “BLM” and splashes of red paint. Kaitlyn O’Keefe, 26, of Humboldt Park, was charged with one count of criminal defacement to property in that case, police said.

Despite being defaced nearly every year, the damage done to the statue in Little Italy has struck a particular nerve as heated debates have swirled in the community over whether the monument should stay or go.

An African American man that lives in Little Italy said he went to the park after it was vandalized to see how the community was responding.

“I’ve never seen so much hate in my community and I lived here for several years,” the man said, asking to remain anonymous for fears of retribution.

When he arrived at the park Saturday, a heated argument was going on between a white resident and an African American man. At one point the white man, later identified as a retired Cook County judge, attempted to throw a punch at the man who had been screaming at him, causing police to pull the judge back. No arrests were made in connection with the incident or the earlier vandalism.

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the video.

The neighborhood has been on edge as it is forced to deal with its own internal fights with racism. On Sunday, a woman’s window was shot at with a BB gun, she believes, because there was a Black Lives Matter sign in the window next to it.

“We don’t know who did it but we are the only apartment with a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign on the block and we are the only apartment that had our window shot at,” she said, asking to remain anonymous. “My hope is that it was some kind of fluke or accident, but I don’t know.”

Resident Antonio Musillami, 41, who has relatives who’ve lived in the neighborhood dating back to the 1920s, thinks the statue should be removed and replaced with a more positive figure. Some have suggested the statue be replaced with one honoring Mother Cabrini, who founded a shuttered hospital nearby, or Florence Scala, who fought to save the neighborhood before the University of Illinois opened its Chicago campus. The Chicago Park District didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Musillami said some Italian Americans believe Columbus is “sort of the last piece” remaining of their heritage.

“It’s a moment in American history right now when people in America are reevaluating historical figures and I don’t think people in the neighborhood can ignore that,” Musillami said.

A source of pride to Italians

Joseph Esposito, who heads up the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association, said the statue is a source of pride and the spot where generations of family photos have been taken.

“We as Italian Americans, we don’t bother anybody, we don’t tell other groups who to celebrate and who not to. ... Unless you would like to celebrate Columbus with us, and I mean this with all due respect, mind your business. If you don’t like him, don’t celebrate him,” Esposito said.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Esposito said of the critics of Columbus. “If it wasn’t for Columbus I honestly believe we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

Heather Miller, executive director of the American Indian Center, which is based on the North Side, strongly disagrees.

“He’s a signal of the beginning of genocide,” Miller said. “We know his actions when he did arrive to this land were the basis to chattel slavery and are a huge factor in the creation of America as we know it today.”