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FEATURE: A Monument Falls in St. Paul

A statue of Christopher Columbus lies face-down on the ground after protestors pulled it from its pedestal near the Minnesota State House on June 10, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0).

A giant statue’s head on the ground. Another larger-than-life statue, bound with rope, being pulled to the ground by a crowd. These were some of the iconic images as the Soviet Union broke apart, as citizens raced to tear down the hated monuments of a system that had oppressed them.

Fast forward to June 10, 2020, when a crowd gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol to call for the removal of Charles Brioschi’s 1931 statue of Christopher Columbus. This was not a modest bust in an obscure alcove: the bronze statue stands 10 feet tall, and that day stood upon a pedestal of similar scale. It was a powerful and evocative presence on the State Capitol grounds, albeit somewhat odd – what connection did an Italian in Spanish service have to Minnesota?

Like the surprising number of Confederate memorials in Union states, Brioschi’s statue was a product of the early 20th century. Between 1900 and 1914, more than three million Italians had come to the United States, a wave that would doubtless have been even larger if World War 1 had not intervened. Many of these new immigrants settled in Minnesota, and as their communities became established the statue was funded, in part, as part of a deliberate effort to celebrate their cultural history.

Many things have changed since 1931, including Columbus’ reputation with large swathes of the general public. While his macrohistorical importance is undeniable, so, too, is the ample documentation – including from his own hand – of the atrocities that he ordered and oversaw during the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Caribbean. As the modern-day American Indian Movement took form – formally founded in Minneapolis in 1968, but active much earlier – calls mounted for the explorer’s statue to be removed.

In many ways, it’s surprising that the statue remained in place for so long. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, activists (or vandals, depending on who you ask) hit the recently restored statue with a red paint. Indigenous Peoples Day has been a state holiday in 2016, and a city holiday in St. Paul for a year before that. Multiple petitions had sought to have the statue removed. Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan had even worked on a bill to have it removed when she served in the Legislature. 

In other ways, the delay is not so surprising, nor the lack of government action to effect a removal. It took almost fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 for the removal of Confederate monuments to pick up steam, and that only in the aftermath of the horrific 2015 Charleston, SC church shooting. To see a statue removed, extrajudicially or otherwise, just two weeks after an inciting event is something novel in this country. 

An unusual domestic development in the statue’s fall is not that it was forcibly toppled by a crowd, but that the event was witnessed by the State Patrol, whose troopers watched the proceedings from a short distance away. After an interval, officials carted the statue off to an unknown location for storage. Governor Waltz issued a statement, saying “I certainly do not condone, nor is this the right way to go about this change,” stating that there would be consequences. It’s a statement that echoes the last days of the Soviet Union as the statues began to fall, security forces refused to get involved, and public officials made vague statements in protest.

We will see if this catches on.

Update: As of June 28, 2020, no charges had been filed against members of the public for their part in the toppling of Brioschi’s statue of Christopher Columbus.

Basil Considine