Hundreds protest in Queens for the removal of Christopher Columbus statue on Astoria Boulevard

Justice for George Queens organizers held a protest to demand the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Astoria Boulevard. (Photo by Dean Moses)

More than a hundred people marched toward Astoria Boulevard on June 17 to denounce the Christopher Columbus statue as a “symbol of genocide” and demand for it to be removed.

The protest, organized by Queens-based group Justice for George Queens, began at Astoria Park’s War Memorial. The organizers hoped to show solidarity with Black and Indigenous people who’ve struggled with colonialism for centuries, as well as to bring attention to Black trans lives lost to hate and police brutality.

Trasonia Abbott, one of the protest’s leaders, began with a meditation followed by a land acknowledgement in support of Black lives in Lenapehoking (the traditional homeland of the Lenape people, which includes New York City) written by writer and photographer Joe Whittle.

“Most of the Lenapeyok and the main political and cultural body of the tribe ended up in Oklahoma after repeated forced removals and relocations spanning over 50 years of exodus and leading halfway across the continent,” the statement read. “It is this storied, shared history of oppression and solidarity, and our love for all of our fellow Indigenous peoples from across the globe, that drives us to stand up for our Black relatives today who face the same ongoing colonial violence that we do as Indigenous ‘Americans.’”

Later in the demonstration, two artists who identify as Muisca, Indigenous people of Colombia, read a poem in Spanish about the intersection of statues that celebrate colonialism and the systemic racism that persists within the United States’ systems.

Photo by Dean Moses

Manuela Agudelo, an organizer with Justice for George Queens, told QNS they wanted to bring closer to home the renewed conversations happening across the nation and world to remove statues of historical figures who contributed to the oppression and violence of Black and Indigenous people.

“We saw that around the world and other nations that there were a lot of people denouncing these bigoted statues, and we felt strongly that this affected our community in Queens,” Agudelo said. “Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world — we should be respecting people who built this country.”

During the first half of the protest, another organizer focused on Black trans lives by reading the names of individuals lost between 2015 and 2020, as a violinist played a somber melody. It took well over four minutes for all the names to be read.

There have been at least 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally killed this year, according to Human Rights Campaign. Some of the most recent high-profile cases include Tony McDade, a Black trans-masculine person, killed by Tallahassee police, and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transgender woman found dead in Philadelphia.

The organizer also spoke about LGBTQ pioneer, Masha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman known as one of the most important figures in the Stonewall Riots in Manhattan, which served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the nation and is now recognized as Pride month in June.

“So when you’re putting on your rainbow colored t-shirts, dancing to your favorite songs at a gay bar and throwing on your body glitter for a Pride parade, know that none of that would be possible without a Black trans woman placing her life on the line,” the organizer said, as the crowd cheered. “When Black trans women are being killed at alarming rates and beaten in the streets, we must protect and value them because that’s exactly what they did and continue to do for the entire LGBTQ+ community all over the world.”

Photo by Dean Moses

Another organizer spoke about how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 afforded so many other rights for immigrants and minority communities, due to that “very tight bill” that gave Black people “some semblance of rights.” The organizer implored others to vote and “bother” their representatives in the local, city and state legislature.

The organizer also acknowledged Senator Michael Gianaris for attending the demonstration.

The protest — a well-organized event with volunteers handing out water bottles, masks, and snacks — then transitioned into a march toward Astoria Boulevard. More than a hundred people marched down Shore Boulevard then Hoyt Avenue, chanting “When Native [interchanged with Black and trans] lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

Police maintained distance from the demonstrators throughout the march and protest, blocking off traffic as they marched down the highway and onto Astoria Boulevard by the N and W train where the statue of Christopher Columbus is placed.

While there, several organizers and community members spoke about Columbus’ legacy in the Indigenous community.

“For many years a lot of people here in America and throughout the world thought this man was a cool guy, but now with further education and … marches like these, we know the real truth,” said Sanakori Taíno Sagrado, who identified as being of Taíno descent of Boriken, the Taíno (Indigenous) name for Puerto Rico.

Sagrado then asked where the markers and new monument honoring Indigenous people are, noting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “broken” promise to add those throughout the city in response to calls to remove Columbus monuments back in 2018.

Photo by Dean Moses

Others talked about the larger movement to defund and ultimately abolish the police, address systemic racism and unlearn the ideals that prevent actual change from taking place.

“It shouldn’t be disheartening because the signs to all this was in front of us the whole time,” said Joseph Martinez, a Queens-based member of Warriors in the Garden, a collective of activists dedicated to non violent protest, as he pointed to the Columbus statue. “The system has not failed us. You know why? Because the system was never designed for us in the first place.”

After a few more speakers, the demonstrators sand and danced along to Bill Withers’ uplifting anthem, “Lean On Me.”

Before ending the demonstration at about 8:30 p.m., the organizers called attention to a petition for the removal of the Columbus statue, addressed to de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

When asked about the calls to remove Columbus statues last week, Cuomo and de Blasio defended the statues as representative of the Italian American legacy.

This is not the first call to remove the Columbus statue at Astoria Boulevard. In 2017, DNA Info reported of a instance in which the statue was tagged with the words “Don’t Honor Genocide. Take It Down.”