How do we deal with vandals who deface statues of Christopher Columbus?
Are they just violating vandalism laws or are they committing a hate crime? Clearly, smearing red paint or writing the word “murderer” on the navigator from Genoa is not just graffiti. It’s a protest against honoring the man. Do the vandals care if Columbus was ethnic Italian? Is it the man himself they despise or all Euro-Caucasians?
There is a new initiative among some Italian American organizations to lobby government to classify defacing Christopher Columbus as a hate crime. It’s a great idea, but will anyone take it seriously?
What I like about the idea is that it puts our community on the offensive regarding 1492. For three decades now, we have been defending Columbus against revisionist history, charges of genocide, and misusing him as the symbol of all Euro-Caucasian crimes in the Americas. Columbus has become the face of racism to the extent that even many Euro-Americans are collaborating in his defamation, mainly out of ignorance or media distortions. It would be a nice change to reverse the charges.
There isn’t any question that the anti-Columbus movement is a denunciation of European exploration and mass immigration. In other words, Native Americans consider White people as the original undocumented aliens. Had their ancestors wiped out Columbus and all the other Europeans on the beaches, the Indigenous paradise would have continued unto today. At best this is a pipe dream, at worst it is xenophobia to the extreme.
Do Native Americans also bear animus against Black Africans as well as East and South Asians for entering the portal that Columbus opened? They don’t dare say it, so their venom is directed at the Paleface. Splatter Columbus and you are targeting Euro-Americans and their dominant culture.
So where is the Italian connection? I would guess that 90% of the Columbus statues and images around the nation were erected by Italian American groups. (A major exception is the Columbus Fountain in front of Union Station in Washington, DC, a government project lobbied by the Catholic Knights of Columbus in 1912.) It is our community that stands guard over these symbols of the Columbian legacy. If anyone is paying the least attention in this country, it is clear that an attack on Columbus is an attack on Italian American culture since it is we who parade our attachment to him in the streets of America. It is our community that feels the sting and our community that reacts. Columbus is our hero. He marks our first arrival in the Americas.
Let’s suppose that, by some miraculous revelation, Columbus was in fact Jewish. (Lord knows he has been the Holy Grail of Jewish researchers!) Would, then, the Jewish community declare the vandalism of their new hero to be anti-Semitism? Or would the vandals have to leave a swastika instead of a schmear of red paint? Either way, it would not be simple vandalism.
If going the hate crime route is a proper initiative, what are the obstacles? One is ridicule – the same ridicule that has denied our community any victory over stereotyping. We are not taken seriously because half our community is either apathetic or supports the offending side. Columbus has already been publicly abandoned by our academics. I can easily imagine their polemics against any hate crime initiative. Nevertheless, if all our organizations press this issue, perhaps we can be taken seriously.
Another obstacle is in what direction to proceed in establishing the hate crime designation. Presently, a petition is being circulated on the internet to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. In short, members of our community want to go right to the top to protect Columbus. But, I wonder how practical it is to leap out of state when our true political strength lies within state borders. Here in New York, we have strong representation in our legislature as well as in the governor. We have a State Police Hate Crimes Task Force which gets its marching orders from Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has defended the Columbus Circle monument as well as offered state funds for a Mother Cabrini statue. Our means are in place.
Other states with strong Italian American numbers can emulate New York’s method. -JLM