Italian American lawmakers and civic leaders rallied Thursday in support of the Christopher Columbus statue that towers over Columbus Circle as New York City officials continue to weigh the removal of controversial statues and monuments.
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to form a special commission that would study the removal of Confederate statues and monuments and other “symbols of hate” after violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia spurred by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Following de Blasio’s declaration, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in remarks to reporters Monday, suggested the mayor’s yet-to-be formed panel should include in its review the statue of the Italian American explorer that has towered over Columbus Circle since the 1890s.
Mark-Viverito said in Caribbean nations there has been much discussion about honoring Columbus, who some groups and historians said oppressed the native populations he encountered.
On Thursday, a coalition of prominent Italian American leaders, including comedian Joe Piscopo, acknowledged at the rally on the steps of City Hall that Columbus was a “flawed” figure, but added that he had been revered by generations of Italian Americans.
“The one iconic symbol for Italian Americans was Christopher Columbus. He’s flawed, we’re all flawed — hey, I’m flawed. Does that mean I’m not gonna get a rest stop named after me on the Jersey Turnpike?” said Piscopo, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member who now hosts a radio talk show in New Jersey. “Stop the political correctness. The political correctness is killing us.”
State Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat representing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, said the “statue in Columbus Circle does not represent the explorer, it represents the experience of the Italian immigrant population.”
Councilman Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican who organized the rally and a longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, said talk of removing the statue “validated what President Trump said.” On Twitter and at a combative news conference two weeks ago, Trump said “who’s next” among the nation’s historical figures to be nixed from public monuments because they were deemed offensive.
“It’s Columbus today and who knows who will be on this secret list tomorrow,” Borelli said of de Blasio's planned review.
Asked about the rally, Mark-Viverito told reporters that she respected the Italian American community and immigrants, but stood by her position that “Christopher Columbus is a controversial figure.”
De Blasio has refused to declare a position about the statue. At a mayoral primary debate Wednesday night, the mayor again deferred to the panel of experts he planned on convening when asked about the future of the midtown Manhattan monument.
“We have to look at everything,” de Blasio said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Sen. Savino’s political party. She is a Democrat.