City begins covering Columbus statue

Crews last week constructed a wooden box around the Christopher Columbus statue at South Philly's Marconi Plaza.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

People gathered Tuesday afternoon on either side of the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia as municipal workers began building a plywood box around the monument to the controversial Italian explorer.

Hawkers stood by selling blue T-shirts featuring Mayor Jim Kenney wearing a clown nose, and organizers asked residents to sign a petition to bring back a police commander who they believe was “demoted.”

Others sported shirts expressing support for former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. His statue in front of the Municipal Services Building was removed last month.

Paper signs were passed out with one side reading: “Real journalists don’t provoke.” An older man carried a Trump 2020 flag.

At one point, officers allowed a pair of men through the gates to hang two American flags and an Italian flag in front of the statue.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Late Monday night, Kenney said the monument at Marconi Plaza, near Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, would be covered up as an effort to protect it while its future is reviewed by the Philadelphia Art Commission, which oversees public art.

He wrote a letter to the city Public Art Director Margot Berg asking her to begin the process as “soon as possible” to consider the “possible removal” of the statue.

“I believe that a public process will allow for all viewpoints—especially those of indigenous people whose ancestors suffered under the rule of European colonizers—to be considered,” Kenney said in a statement.

“It’s also my hope that by initiating this process, the current tensions in Marconi Plaza can end,” he added.

Tensions were still high Tuesday, as pro-Columbus demonstrators engaged in scuffles with counter-protesters.

Many came out to support Police Capt. Lou Campione, who, until Monday, was commander of the 1st District, which covers South Philadelphia west of Broad Street and the Navy Yard.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

He was reassigned two days after a video surfaced showing him telling a reporter from Unicorn Riot, a left-wing alternative media outlet, to leave the plaza and accusing him of trying to incite a riot.

Another clip posted by Unicorn Riot showed vigilantes appearing to assault the reporter and slash his bicycle tires.

“Capt. Campione’s change-in-command was one of several command changes that took place yesterday,” a PPD spokesperson said Tuesday. “These command changes were not related to any specific incident.”

Pro-Columbus residents believe the move was in response to how officers have handled the statue-related tension, and so does Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the union that represents members of the department.

“The Mayor and Police leadership are more concerned with appeasing the anarchist mobs descending upon our city and are less concerned about our citizens, our neighborhoods and the overall public safety of our great city,” the FOP said in a statement about the reassignment.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Campione, a 43-year PPD veteran, took over the 1st District a decade ago. WHYY reported he was moved to the Standards and Accountability Unit and that the decision was made due to a guideline that captains not lead districts where they reside.

Kenney said he was not involved in Campione’s transfer and that the call was made by Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

Across the country, Columbus statues have been targeted by activists amid a focus on how racism has played a role in the country’s history following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police

At least one elected official, Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, has called on the city to get rid of the Marconi Plaza statue.

“The removal of the Columbus statue would be an important step in rectifying the myth that America was discovered by white Europeans,” Brooks said Monday on Twitter.

Brooks said the pro-Columbus faction, some of whom showed up armed over the weekend, were trying to protect “white innocence and white supremacy” more than the monument itself.

No timetable has been established for the Art Commission’s review, but Kenney said it’s his understanding the city has the power to remove the statue. It was gifted to the city by a group who arranged to have it moved to South Philadelphia from its original location in Fairmount Park, he said.

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