The statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza had been hidden in a plywood box since the 2020 George Floyd riots. It was boxed after a city-wide iconoclastic purge following the riots (likewise, the city entirely removed the Mayor Frank Rizzo statue near City Hall). Rioters also defaced and tried to topple a City Hall statue of Matthias Baldwin, a radical abolitionist and founder of one of the largest locomotive manufacturing firms of his day. The rioters charged Baldwin with being a “colonizer and a murderer.” In fact, he was the founder of a school for black children in the city.
Though the Columbus statue managed to survive destruction, the left-wing activists’ targeting of the explorer caused South Philadelphians and pro-Columbus Philadelphians to prepare for the worst. As a result, many of the statue’s supporters came to Marconi Plaza armed with baseball bats when rioters surrounded the statue in what seemed set to become a toppling ritual. During one tense confrontation, a left-wing journalist claimed that Columbus supporters assaulted him.
The alleged assault made front-page news in Philadelphia. The media played up the baseball bat angle, while neglecting to mention that the journalist in question was a reporter for a publication called Why Riot—a small broadside printed in the style of 1960s revolutionary leaflets.
Why Riot is a treasure trove of street-warrior rhetoric. A sample: “The riot, then, is not a hindrance to ‘real’ struggle or a well-intentioned accident where peoples’ ‘understandable’ anger gets ‘out of control.’ Getting out of control is the point, which is precisely why the riot is the foundation from which any future worth the name must be built.”
“Getting out of control” well describes what happened in Philadelphia during the Floyd riots, when the only monument that seemed safe was the golden statue of Joan of Arc on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Joan of Arc was at least female, and, though white, she might, under a modern-day academician’s lens, fit the transgender label.
Mayor Jim Kenney approved the boxing up of the 146-year-old Columbus statue for possible removal to a nonpublic space, where its presence would no longer offend. His move followed the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s decision in 2021 to “advance public safety and to protect the statue”—by which it meant the removal of the statue from its present location. Hidden away, the statue would no longer inflame protesters’ anger, and the city would buy time to decide what to do with it. (A judge subsequently blocked removal of the statue.) The mayor had, of course, made clear that he was no fan of Christopher Columbus, and that the city would fare better without the statue. Columbus, after all, had enslaved indigenous people and imposed punishments “such as severing limbs or murder,” Kenney noted, and while many revered him as an explorer, “surely the totality of this history must be accounted for when considering whether to erect or maintain a monument to this person.”
For many Philadelphians, covering the Columbus statue in plywood was the last straw. Citizens mounted a court challenge, but hopes for a quick resolution were dim. Friends of Marconi Plaza sued the city to have the box removed but, given the political mood (during this period, the City Hall Christmas Tree was renamed the Holiday Tree), few expected the statue ever to see the light of day.
On December 9, however, Pennsylvania judge Mary Hannah Leavitt ruled that the plywood box covering the statue must be removed. She stated that, if the city disagrees with the statue’s “message,” it could add a plaque explaining what is “more in line with the message the City wishes to convey.”
“More to the point,” Judge Leavitt continued, “the City accepted the donation of the Columbus statue in 1876. It has a fiduciary duty to preserve that statue, which it designated an historic object in 2017. The Columbus statue is not City property as is, for example, a City snowblower. Whether the City agrees with the ‘message’ is simply irrelevant to its fiduciary duty to preserve and maintain public works of art that have been designated historic objects.” Leavitt’s ruling reversed a 2021 court decision permitting the city to keep the statue in a box.
Kenney, who in an unguarded moment almost a year ago told a news reporter that he looks forward to when he is no longer mayor, has announced no plans to appeal the judge’s decision. His response came in the form of a milquetoast tweet: “Grateful that the Commonwealth Court took the time to review this important matter tonight. The Commonwealth Court reinstated the stay and overturned the Court of Common Pleas order from earlier today. No action will be taken with respect to the statue at this time.”
Reaction in the city was largely positive. Attorney George Bochetto, who represents the statue’s supporters, stated that he is “delighted” that “the rule of law still matters.” He added that “we are not a society ruled by cancel culture mobs,” and that “all ethnic groups can proudly protect and honor their diverse heritages.”
On the other side, City of Philadelphia spokesperson Kevin Lessard said that the city was “very disappointed” in the court’s ruling. “We continue to believe that the Christopher Columbus statue, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current position at Marconi Plaza,” Lessard said. He added that the city would “continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds.”
Perhaps at some point the city will opt to include an NC-17 label on the statue, or a plaque instructing minors to consult a parent or teacher schooled in progressive history. For now, however, Columbus will once again see the light of day in Philadelphia.