Proud Boys flock to pro-Columbus statue rally in Little Italy as far-right ups profile

“The statue continues to bring hate and divisiveness to this community,” one resident said after the event last month marking the one-year anniversary of its removal.

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Members of the Proud Boys joined hundreds of demonstrators who urged city officials to return statues of Christopher Columbus to public spaces in the city during a rally at Arrigo Park, Sunday, July 25, 2021.

A year after the Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park was yanked down amid mounting protests, hundreds rallied at the same spot in the heart of Little Italy last month to demand the city restore that monument to the explorer and two others.

Billed as Italian Unity Day, the July 25 event included many with deep ties to the neighborhood. But it was also filled with members of a controversial western chauvinist group with a long track record of sowing division: the Proud Boys.

Members of the group —which figured prominently in the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 and at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — attended the rally and confronted counterprotesters. They also marched down the middle of a quiet residential street waving flags, flashing far-right hand-gestures and screaming obscenities at “antifa” — referring to the antifascist activists that serve as a perpetual thorn in their sides.

Now, weeks after the event, a neighborhood that was already torn over the fate of the Columbus sculpture is awash in debate again as the city decides what to do with the statue and other controversial monuments in the city.

“Definitely sad that the statue continues to bring hate and divisiveness to this community,” resident Ken Brown wrote on Nextdoor, a popular neighborhood social networking service. “This is America, everyone has the right to their views, but we all must continue to support, understand and love each other!”

Ald. Jason Ervin, whose 28th Ward includes the park, said late last week the Proud Boys’ presence, combined with their role in the Capitol insurrection, was concerning.

“Hate has no place in our community and anyone fomenting it will face the consequences,” Ervin said in a statement. “There’s a difference between open debate about whom we honor in our public spaces and fighting against the very government that protects those rights.”

The event also signaled yet another example of far-right groups increasing their activism in the Chicago area, experts 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 last summer. They attempted to pull the statue down and many battled with Chicago police officers.

Sun-Times files

Statues spark big debate

The simmering debate over city monuments came to a head amid the wave of protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd. The crescendo happened on July 17, 2020, when leftist and other demonstrators tried to pull down the Columbus statue in Grant Park, setting off violent clashes with police.

Citing the protests and the failed attempt to bring down the statue, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered its removal a week later, along with the Columbus statue in Arrigo Park. A third monument to the Italian explorer was later pulled from its pedestal in the South Chicago neighborhood.

The Lightfoot administration also launched an ongoing review of monuments that were flagged for a variety of reasons, like promoting narratives of white supremacy, presenting inaccurate or demeaning representations of Native Americans, and memorializing those linked to racist acts, slavery and genocide. Critics of Columbus say he’s a symbol of racism and imperialism, but many in the Italian American community still regard him as an important historical figure.

The city has given no timeline for the project’s completion and no update on what actions it might take.

Mayoral spokesman Alex Murphy said the city has been “purposeful in engaging residents, community organizations and national experts to help guide the Chicago Monuments Project.

“At the conclusion of this deliberative process, the city will release a report summarizing this engagement and the committee’s recommendations,” Murphy said. “Ensuring that our city’s symbols represent inclusivity and uplift the stories of Chicago remains paramount.”

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans planned the event in Arrigo Park last month on the one-year anniversary of the statues’ removal.

Ron Onesti, the group’s president, said the fight to bring back the Little Italy monument had become a multi-ethnic effort over the past year, and that every culture was welcomed to attend the event.

Witnesses said the event was largely peaceful, and images circulating on social media appear to show only minor skirmishes and arguments. No one was arrested, according to the Chicago Police Department, which witnesses said sent a large presence to keep the peace.

But video from a private Proud Boys Telegram channel shared with the Sun-Times also shows a few dozen demonstrators walking down the middle of Polk Street, away from the statue, in broad daylight.

Some are seen hoisting American flags, one of which appears to be emblazoned with a Gadsden rattlesnake, a symbol that dates back to the American Revolution but has been co-opted by the far-right. Many flash an “okay” hand gesture the Anti-Defamation has listed as a symbol of hate, along with the Nazi salute and Ku Klux Klan robes. And one of the marchers is seen wearing a shirt that appears to be associated with the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia movement that also played a role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“F--- antifa,” they’re heard chanting over and over again.

Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Delatorre was among the Proud Boys present for the rally. After popping up in photos and videos of the insurrection, he was later arrested in a dustup at a political rally in Schaumburg; the charges were ultimately dropped.

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Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Delatorre (left), the former leader of the Chicago Proud Boys, marches alongside Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys’ chairman, during the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Despite the group’s track record and alignment with other extremists, Delatorre said he and other Proud Boys converged at the Italian Unity Day event because they’re members of “a diverse organization that doesn’t discriminate.”

“We went out there to support our Italian brothers and other Italians who feel wronged by the tearing down of their statue,” Delatorre said in a statement. “ ... Today it’s Columbus, tomorrow it’s Dr. Martin Luther King.”

But antifascist activists present at the rally gave a different story, claiming members of the group were “yelling transphobic and racist obscenities” at both counterprotesters and passersby.

“They threw tiny rubber toy penises and beer cans at the counterprotesters while police watched,” according to the administrator of an antifascist Twitter account who documented the event and asked to remain anonymous. “When the counterprotesters left, a group of 20+ proud boys attempted to follow the group with the hope of instigating violence.”

Delatorre doesn’t appear in the video, but he denied that was the intent and claimed members of the Proud Boys were “marching away” from counterprotesters.

‘Risk of violence is very real’

David Goldenberg, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest office, noted that similar events have turned ugly.

“The risk of violence is very real” when groups like the Proud Boys meet up with others advocating for a common cause, according to Goldendberg, who said the removal of monuments has “historically been a flashpoint for extremists.”

He specifically pointed to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where members of the Proud Boys converged with white nationalists to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It ended when a white supremacist intentionally drove into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Arrigo Park was cast in Rome in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Arrigo Park before it was removed. It was cast in Rome in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Sun-Times files

After the July 25 rally, even some who supported the statue’s return said they were abhorred by the presence of the extremists.

“I’d like to have the Columbus statue back, but don’t want the Proud Boys in the neighborhood,” a resident wrote on Nextdoor.

Onesti said he was unaware they were there.

“I am unfamiliar with the group. I do not support violence, destruction, racism, bigotry or disrespect of any kind,” he said.

Would he have asked the groups to leave the rally if he knew they had ties to the Capitol insurrection?

“It’s not my place to ask anyone to leave,” he said.

Kall Vee, a longtime resident of Little Italy, scoffed at that and noted that Onesti and many others pushing for the return of the statue no longer live in the neighborhood.

“You know how many times people who were against the statue were kicked out of the park or asked to stand across the street by those people over the past year?” Vee, 39, said. “The people behind the organization who are putting these rallies together, and the people who are attending these events are not even from Little Italy. What they are doing is dividing this community and not uniting it.”

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans “made it political, and it is no longer about Italian people,” Vee said. “The whole reason people don’t want the statue is because he is a genocidal racist, and we want to honor indigenous people. When you begin talking about preserving your culture over other people’s culture you are literally advocating for white supremacy.”

He added: “So is it really a surprise the Proud Boys showed up?”

Other right-wing figures present

They weren’t the only polarizing figures in attendance.

John Catanzara, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, received an award honoring the officers who guarded the Grant Park Columbus statue during the standoff with activists last year. In a speech to the crowd, Catanzara reflected upon also being at the park with other police union leaders when city crews removed it.

“We were literally waiting around for the calvary to come,” he said. “I can tell you right now, if we had this kind of turnout in Columbus Park, [the statue] would’ve never came down.”

Catanzara, a well-known Trump supporter, went on to call the counterprotesters at the Little Italy rally “knuckleheads.”

The outspoken union boss, who has been stripped of his police powers, previously attended a rally in 2019 against Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx that also drew a contingent of Proud Boys. He was photographed there chatting with Brien James, a Proud Boys leader the Anti-Defamation League described as “a longtime Indiana white supremacist.”

He also showed up at a pro-cop rally in Grant Park shortly after the Columbus statue was removed. That event was the first organized by Ashley Ramos, an ally of Delatorre who also attended the recent Arrigo Park rally.

In a series of messages, Ramos said she was compelled to launch her nonprofit, Back the Blue Events, after watching “the cops being attacked” in Grant Park.

She has since developed into a sort of homegrown firebrand, appearing on conservative talk radio to advocate for teenage vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse and leading rallies trumpeting former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.

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Ashley Ramos (front left, wearing a blue sweatshirt) and a group of “Stop the Steal” protesters walk toward Trump Tower after protesting in Millennium Park, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At the same time, she has ingratiated herself with mainstream Republicans. Last August, Back the Blue Events held a candidate forum that included Mark Curran, a failed U.S. Senate hopeful, and Pat O’Brien, who unsuccessfully challenged Foxx.

She also acknowledged she has on multiple occasions worked with Delatorre, including at a “Stop the Steal” rally she organized downtown last Thanksgiving.

“[Delatorre] and I believe in holding police accountable, holding politicians accountable, freedom of speech, preserving freedoms, choosing if you should wear a mask or take a vaccine,” she said. “I can stand next to anyone and fight for these things.”

Meanwhile, Goldenberg warned that groups like the Proud Boys continue to exploit new “flash points,” like the city’s continuing debate over its monuments that spilled into the streets of Little Italy last month. Such opportunities, he added, also serve as fertile ground for indoctrination and recruitment.

“Jan. 6 was not the end,” he said of the continued threat of extremism. “It was just the end of the beginning.”

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