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Lightfoot defends middle-of-the-night removal of Columbus statues

The mayor would not elaborate on the nature of the threat or the source of the intelligence that led her to believe there would be a repeat of confrontation between protesters and police that occurred the week before.

City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.
City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park early Friday morning.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she ordered two statues of Christopher Columbus “temporarily” removed in the middle of the night after receiving “intelligence that gave us great concern” that something bad was about to happen.

The mayor refused to elaborate on the threat or the source of the intelligence that led her to believe Chicago was about to see a repeat of the ugly Grant Park confrontation between protesters and police that, she claimed, had been “hijacked” by a small group of “vigilantes who came for a fight.”

But Lightfoot made it clear she considered the warning serious enough to warrant immediate action in the middle of the night.

“I wanted to make sure we did it as quickly as possible. We received some information that day [Thursday] that raised some very serious public safety concerns. I didn’t want to wait,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot argued there is no comparison to the action she took and Mayor Richard M. Daley’s midnight destruction of Meigs Field on Northerly Island.

Daley consulted virtually no one and sent in a fleet of bulldozers to carve giant X’s in the lakefront airport’s only runway to realize his longstanding dream of turning the island into a park.

Lightfoot, by contrast, said she “consulted a lot of people along the way” and was motivated only by public safety.

“I don’t do anything in a vacuum. I always make sure that we’re reaching out proactively to talk to a number of different folks. And I think people understand, given what happened and what was threatened, that this was about public safety,” she said.

Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on Friday. They attempted to pull the statue down and many battled with Chicago police officers.
Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on Friday. They attempted to pull the statue down and many battled with Chicago police officers.
Alexander Gouletas/For the Sun-Times

Some people don’t believe the mayor’s stated motives and proclaimed desire to avoid diverting precious police resources toward downtown protests and away from South Side and West Side neighborhoods struggling to contain gang violence.

They have accused Lightfoot of rewarding the rioters. She disagreed.

“This was about public safety. Anyone who saw the videotapes from a previous Friday night, which saw a peaceful protest hijacked by vigilantes who came there to hurt the police but also other people got hurt in the ensuing chaos [knows better]. This was about public safety, pure and simple,” she said.

The skeptics also include Italian-Americans and other proponents of the Columbus statues removed from Grant Park and Arrigo Park.

They don’t believe the mayor when she says the statues were “temporarily” moved to a safe place to protect them from further damage.

The statue of Christopher Columbus at Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., was covered after bing vandalized on June 17, 2020.
The statue of Christopher Columbus at Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., before it was removed.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lightfoot dismissed those skeptics, as well.

“I said it’s temporary,” the mayor said.

Statues of Columbus in Chicago and elsewhere have become a target of protests against racial injustice. The Italian explorer mistreated the indigenous people he encountered, activists say, and his arrival in North America led to colonization and exploitation.

Last month, Lightfoot said Chicago statues of Columbus vandalized repeatedly since the death of George Floyd should not be torn down, but rather used to confront the nation’s history and trigger a “reckoning” that’s long-overdue.

Yet after the July 17 stand-off, she said her team has been developing a plan for a “comprehensive review of our public icons.”

On Monday, the mayor renewed that commitment.

“What we’re gonna be announcing is a process by which we take stock of murals and monuments and other memorials to our past, but also that we talk about the past that hasn’t been highlighted or lifted up. There’s a lot of richness to our history as Chicagoans as a city that doesn’t appear in any way shape or form of memorialization,” she said.

“We don’t do enough to talk about indigenous peoples here in Chicago and that long history. … There’s very little that memorializes and uplifts the challenges, but also the triumphs of people of color: Black, Latinx, Asian. We see very little commemorating … the contributions of women in our city. This is a conversation that’s long overdue and we will have it.”

The mayor said she’s asking “art historians and other stakeholders” to “come together in a very specific mission — not just to look backward but to look forward as well.”

Lightfoot “understands the skepticism” from protest groups that don’t believe they will be treated respectfully by Chicago police.

“A number of safeguards have been put into place. Will it be perfect? Will it be incident-free? Probably not, because that’s human nature,” Lightfoot said.

“But we’re certainly gonna strive to do everything we can to make sure that we keep people that are out there in the street, in peaceful protest safe, and that we also make sure that our officers are doing the right thing. But [those officers] also have a right to return to their families without injury.”