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As 2021 comes to a close, the statue of Christopher Columbus remains standing in Marconi Plaza. And as it has for the past year and a half, it remains entirely enclosed in a wooden box.
The legal battle over whether the City of Philadelphia is allowed to relocate the statue could take another year or two to reach a conclusion, said the lawyer arguing to keep it in place. While Commonwealth Court deliberates the fate of the marble monument, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will decide what happens to the plywood container around it.
Neither side appears ready to concede ground.
“The city still intends to move forward with its plan for the relocation of the Christopher Columbus statue,” Kevin Lessard, communications director for the Mayor’s Office, told Billy Penn mid-December.
The opposing attorney expressed similar confidence. “I’ve got Columbus fights going on all over the East Coast. And we’re winning every one of them,” said George Bochetto, who represents Friends of Marconi Plaza in a lawsuit against the city.
There are just under 150 Christopher Columbus statues still standing throughout the country, according to an October audit by Philadelphia-based Monument Lab. That’s fewer than there once were. Since the 1970s, several dozen places in the U.S. (and throughout the Americas) have taken down representations of the 15th century explorer some view as a perpetrator and architect of genocide against Indigenous people.
Calls to reimagine Columbus tributes in Philly have been loud since at least 2015. The current tug-of-war began in 2020, during the social justice protests that surged across the globe after George Floyd’s murder.
After Marconi Plaza was the site of clashes that turned violent, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration started the process to have the statue removed. Within a few months, the effort had been approved by three city commissions or review boards and was on its way to being carried out. That didn’t sit well with some residents, who hired Bochetto and filed suit.
The 145-year-old statue was a gift from the Italian government to Philadelphia for the city’s Centennial Exposition in 1876. Though his famed trans-Atlantic expeditions were sponsored by Spain, Columbus was of Italian origin, and some in the Italian-American community see his place in world history as a point of pride.
“It has become the symbol of pride,” said Bochetto, “and remembrance of the suffering that Italian-Americans have gone through as immigrants to make their way in this country.”
Bochetto, who told the Associated Press he’s considering a Republican candidacy for Pa.’s open U.S. Senate seat, is also heading cases against removal of Columbus statues in Pittsburgh and Boston. Though he said he supports it as a separate holiday, Bochetto also recently brought a federal lawsuit challenging Mayor Kenney’s executive order replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
In October, right before Philly celebrated its first official Indigenous Peoples Day, it looked like the plywood box around the Marconi Plaza Columbus statue was about to come down.
A local judge ruled there was no good reason to keep it hidden, and suggested a plexiglass container instead. But a higher judge quickly vacated that order, agreeing with city lawyers that the timing of the removal would cause “a serious public safety risk.”
The box question was appealed up to the Pa. Supreme Court, where it now stands.
All required briefs in that case have been filed, Bochetto said, so a ruling could come at any time. Or the justices could decide to schedule oral arguments, asking each side to further make their case.
Meanwhile, the city is searching for a better location. “The city continues to welcome inquiries from individuals or organizations interested in working to find an appropriate home for the statue,” said Lessard, the Kenney administration spokesperson.
Here’s a timeline of the ping-pong legal battle and the context in which it unfolded.
Timeline: Legal battle over the Marconi Plaza Columbus statue
June 13, 2020
Though there haven’t yet been any protests nearby, a crowd of about 100 people gather at Marconi Plaza to “defend” the statue. Some carry baseball bats and one reportedly has a rifle. Counter-protesters are drawn to the scene, and verbal skirmishes create a tense atmosphere. At least one physical assault is reported.
June 14, 2020
June 15, 2020
The city erects a plywood box around the statue, hiding it from view, as Mayor Kenney asks the public art director of the Philadelphia Art Commission to initiate a public process to determine the statue’s future.
June 16, 2020
PPD Capt. Louis Campione is reassigned and transferred out of the 1st Police District, ostensibly because of his handling of the protests. Some nearby residents decry the move, saying “This is just Jimmy [Mayor Kenney] punishing the neighborhood,” because of the statue debate.
July 22, 2020
The Kenney administration presents a proposal to the Art Commission to have the statue be removed. Community members weigh in on a five-and-a-half hour Zoom call following the proposal, with more than half voicing their support for keeping the statue.
July 24, 2020
The Historical Commission of Philadelphia says the statue can be taken down and moved elsewhere.
Aug. 12, 2020
The Philadelphia Art Commission votes unanimously to remove the statue and place it in temporary storage. They mandate a report on the statue’s condition to be filed every six months.
Sept. 29, 2020
The city’s Board of License and Inspection Review approves the Historical Commision of Philadelphia’s decision to remove the statue.
Attorney George Bochetto represents The Friends of Marconi Plaza, a nonprofit, in filing a lawsuit against the Board of License and Inspection Review, challenging their decision to remove the statue.
Jan. 27, 2021
Kenney declares that the Columbus Day holiday will now be known as Indigenous People’s Day, in an executive order which also establishes Juneteenth as an official city holiday.
April 6, 2021
Councilmember Mark Squilla, Bochetto, and Italian-American groups file a separate federal lawsuit against Kenney, claiming the mayor is discriminating against Italian-Americans by delisting Columbus Day as a holiday, among other incidents.
Aug. 17, 2021
Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick rules the statue should stay in Marconi Plaza, calling the decision to remove it “baffling,” and based on insufficient evidence. She agrees with Bochetto’s arguments that the city did not follow procedures outlined in the Home Rule Charter for the removal of the statue, and lacked a legal foundation to do so.
Oct. 8, 2021
Judge Patrick issues an order saying the box around the statue should be removed right away, noting that in the interest of its preservation, construction of a clear barrier around the statue should be permitted.
Oct. 9, 2021
Supporters of the statue, including convicted former political bigwig Vince Fumo, being to gather in the park to await the unboxing, but the city files an emergency application to stay the removal order. Commonwealth Court rules in the city’s favor, vacating Patrick’s order to immediately remove the box.
Oct. 11, 2021
Philadelphia celebrates its first Indigenous People’s Day, in place of the federal Columbus Day holiday.
The sides await the Pa. Supreme Court’s decision on whether the plywood box must be removed. The underlying case about relocating the statue is also pending, in Commonwealth Court.