Someone’s getting evicted from San Jose City Hall in California after 60 years of residence: Christopher Columbus, who had previously occupied a place of pride in the building’s lobby.
Evidently recognizing that celebrating a figure known for racism, genocide and colonialism wasn’t a great look for a forward-thinking, progressive city, the City Council announced that the statue will be removed and has six weeks to find a new place.
The move was a response to an organizing campaign by the San Jose Brown Berets, a Chicano service and activist organization. It’s part of their Decolonize San Jose program, which also aims to remove other monuments to colonialism and oppression in the city.
Over the course of 2017, a growing wave of civic statue removals in response to outcry swept across the United States. Most of these statues were affiliated with icons of the Confederacy, with civil rights advocates arguing that celebrating white supremacist heroes wasn’t consistent with the values of many communities. Some of the statues came down in the dead of night, quietly carted off by public works employees. Others were actually torn down by crowds tired of waiting. Some places are renaming their buildings, too.
But Native American and indigenous groups have also been fighting a long and bitter battle over altars to colonialism found in cities and towns across the United States. Aside from the numerous place names associated with Columbus and his ilk, a number of cities still have statues of the historic figure. Advocates argue that, much like Confederate statues, these monuments should be relegated to history, not kept on display in buildings dedicated to public functions.
San Jose’s decision to remove this particular statue represents a big victory, and it also sends a message to the rest of the United States: You, too can get rid of your Columbus statues — and circles, parks, streets and other place names — and strip Columbus Day from your list of holidays.
San Francisco has already taken action, and the city will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in October — not Columbus Day.
In San Jose, the Columbus statue will go into storage if it can’t be relocated. The Italian-American community is exploring possibilities, so it may end up on public display elsewhere. That said, local museums have yet to express an interest, since the statue itself is not artistically notable, just of historic interest. Moreover, it’s been creatively modified by protesters several times — even in the safety of city hall — so it’s highly probable that a public display would be subjected to editorial commentary via local activists.
The question of what to do with statues like this one can be tricky. While they do have some historical value — and preserving them can be an important part of recognizing the shared heritage of the United States — it’s important to store and display them in ways that appropriately contextualize them.
In case you’re curious, the statue came to San Jose as a gift from the Italian-American community, and the city’s own mayor, also Italian-American, was one of those who voted in favor of removal. Mayor Sam Liccardo told ABC News: “I think our understanding of history evolves as we learn more.”
Up next? Well, some organizations are likely hoping that San Francisco’s Columbus statue will also be consigned to the dustbin.