Rainy weather and controversy cast a pall over New York City’s annual Columbus Day Parade on Monday, as politicians and parade goers weighed in on recent calls to remove the explorer’s statue from Columbus Circle.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who for weeks has faced criticism from Italian-American groups for not choosing a side in the debate over the statue, told reporters at the start of the parade that any talk of dismantling the monument was premature. He said the parade should be spent focusing on the successes of Italian-Americans.
“You can debate the historic figure of Christopher Columbus, but you can’t debate” the contributions of Italian-Americans, de Blasio said.
The debate over the 75-foot Columbus statue emerged in August, soon after the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that stemmed from the removal of a Confederate-era statue. De Blasio announced in August he would convene a blue ribbon panel to examine the city’s controversial monuments and other “symbols of hate.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other activists have suggested that the Columbus Circle statue be examined in the process. They argue the explorer committed genocide against American Indians. Calls for the statue’s removal prompted protests from Italian-American groups who have said it represents the struggles of Italians who immigrated to the United States. De Blasio has repeatedly deferred all questions on whether he believes the statue should stay put to his recently formed panel.
“I’ve said there are a lot of different solutions — including something as simple as putting additional historical markers up to tell other elements of the history. That should be a conversation people are not afraid of,” de Blasio said on Monday. “The commission will do its work, then there’ll be a public discussion of it.”
Hecklers jeered and cursed at the mayor at several points along the rainy parade route that stretched up Fifth Avenue between East 47th and East 72nd streets.
Gov. Andrew M.Cuomo told reporters before the parade that it was possible to celebrate both Columbus and the struggles of the indigenous people he conquered.
“It’s not an either or — it’s both,” Cuomo said. “Of course we should honor the indigenous people. They were abused by many leaders.”
Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), the head of the state Senate’s breakaway Democrats, led a petition drive to keep the statue in Columbus Circle, despite efforts by many fellow Democrats to tear it down.
“It is offensive to tear down an important part of Italian-American history in New York City and we will not stand for it,” said Klein, who serves as leader of the Independent Democratic Conference. He said he collected more than 1,000 signatures along the parade route Monday.
Several parade spectators said they disagreed with any proposals to get rid of the statue.
Lower East Side resident Maria Garbin, 68, who was born in Italy said: “I think history is history. I still say he was a great discoverer. . . . He changed history.”
Meanwhile, at the American Museum of Natural History, several activist groups organized an “Anti-Columbus Day Tour,” where they took observers to different exhibits and explained Columbus’ impact on the natives he encountered.
Amin Husain, one of the event organizers said the protest was “out of love . . . we want to heal.”
— With Michael Gormley and Ivan Pereira