Italian American groups and Councilmember Squilla sue Mayor Kenney for nixing Columbus Day

Filed in federal court, the lawsuit also cites the removal of the Rizzo statue and the demotion of a police captain.

City Councilmember Mark Squilla in 2019

City Councilmember Mark Squilla in 2019

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Councilmember Mark Squilla and Italian American groups in Philadelphia have filed a discrimination lawsuit against Mayor Jim Kenney over his delisting of Columbus Day as a city holiday in Philadelphia.

In addition to Squilla, plaintiffs include the 1492 Society, the organization that plans Philly’s annual Columbus Day parade; the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, a NYC-based coalition of prominent Italian American groups; and Jody Della Barba, a former secretary to Frank Rizzo and avid defender of his legacy.

The suit claims Kenney, a South Philly native of Irish descent, has shown a pattern of “continued, unrelenting, and intentionally discriminatory acts” against Italian Americans — chiefly via the January executive order that replaced Columbus Day with Indigenious Peoples Day.

In a rare clash with Kenney, Squilla, the only Italian American lawmaker on Council, was a vocal critic of the switch.

Columbus Day celebrations in the U.S. date back to the late 18th century, later codified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 into one of 10 federal holidays. Today, at least 14 states and over 130 cities observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of or in addition to celebrating the 15th century explorer, according to USA Today. Columbus’ ethnic heritage is a matter of public dispute.

The plaintiffs say in the suit they have nothing against Indigenous People.

“While both groups’ ethnicity deserve recognition, Mayor Kenney may not take action that discriminates against Italian Americans to exalt another ethnic group in its place,” the lawsuit reads.

Part of the legal argument for reinstating the holiday hinges on Kenney “unilaterally” nixing it without consulting City Council, allegedly in violation of “multiple restrictions” in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter.

Mayors routinely tweak the city’s holiday list with executive orders. Last summer, for example Kenney declared Juneteenth a city holiday. City Council also often passes bills proposing to rename certain months or days.

Squilla said that’s not the same, because Columbus Day was replaced in this case.

“We support Juneteenth, we support Indigenous days for folks,” he told Billy Penn. “We don’t support bringing somebody down to lift somebody else up.”

In staking out a discrimination claim, the complaint also points to a loosely related collection of other Kenney statements and actions involving Italian Americans, including:

  • The removal of the Frank Rizzo statue from the Municipal Services Building plaza last year, and the attempted removal of the 140 year-old Christopher Columbus statue in South Philly’s Marconi Plaza. Both statues are the subject of ongoing lawsuits.
  • The demotion of former 1st District Captain Louis Campione, who is Italian American, after allegations that his officers defended white vigilantes during protests at the Marconi Plaza statue last summer.
  • A lone 2016 remark made by Kenney during a speech about keeping Philadelphia a “sanctuary city.” The complaint only cites part of the quote focused on Italians. Here’s the full quote in context, as reported by the Inquirer at the time: “This is about mayors buckling under the pressures of xenophobes and racists. This is undocumented brown and black people and that’s what drives the underlying source of anger. … If this were cousin Emilio or Cousin Guido, we wouldn’t have this problem because they’re white.”
  • The lawsuit further alleges, without evidence, that the Kenney administration discriminated against Italian Americans by not including the 19148 zip code among the list of prioritized areas eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in March. Health officials said they prioritized zip codes based on lowest vaccination rate. (All Philadelphians are eligible for the vaccine beginning April 19.)

It’s unclear whether these argument will hold any legal weight in court. Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn said: “Our position is that those allegations, along with all of the other claims, are meritless.”

Democratic attorney Adam Bonin, who worked as Kenney’s campaign lawyer, posted a tongue-in-cheek message on Twitter about the lawsuit filed on Tuesday in federal court. “This is a real thing which lawyers signed,” Bonin wrote.

 

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