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December 09, 2022

Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza must be uncovered, Pennsylvania court rules

The controversial monument has been concealed since a series of physical altercations broke out between an armed group that vowed to protect it and those demanding its removal

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Columbus Statue Box Marconi Plaza Street View/Google Maps

For more than two years, a box has covered the statue of Christopher Columbus at South Philadelphia's Marconi Plaza. A court ruling says the box must now be removed.

The plywood box that has covered the Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza since June 2020 must be removed, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled Friday.

Philadelphia officials had the monument covered after an armed group of people claiming to protect the statue faced off with another group protesting for its removal. Multiple physical altercations happened at the plaza around that time, which coincided with civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

A group of volunteers called the Friends of Marconi Plaza sued to have the monument displayed again, spurring a legal battle that has swung back and forth over the past two years. The latest ruling overturned a 2021 decision that permitted the city to keep the statue boxed up. 

Those in favor of preserving the monument say it is a cultural representation of Italian heritage, while those in opposition view it as a symbol of oppression.

"We are very disappointed in the court's ruling," Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said. "We continue to believe that the Christopher Columbus statue, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current position at Marconi Plaza."

The city is still reviewing the latest ruling made by the three-judge panel.

"While we will respect this decision, we will also continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone's different backgrounds," Lessard said.

In August 2020, the Philadelphia Art Commission and the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to have the boxed up statue removed from the plaza and to consider other locations for it to be displayed.

The subsequent lawsuit resulted in the statue remaining covered at the plaza throughout the appeals process. 

In October, during an Italian heritage festival and parade, the box was painted to resemble the Italian flag

The city has argued that removing the statue from the plaza is an important step toward addressing Columbus' controversial legacy. Long celebrated as an explorer, Columbus' record of colonization and genocide of Indigenous people has come under greater scrutiny in recent decades by scholars and social movements, alike.

"As Philadelphia — and the nation — continue to reckon with the deep legacy of racism and oppression in America, it is critical that our public spaces are seen as safe, welcoming and inclusive for all people," Kenney said in 2020.

During the unrest and later in court, the city also argued that the statue poses a potential threat to public safety.

Other Columbus statues around the country were vandalized during protests that followed Floyd's murder. Some cities, including Camden, had their monuments removed.

Last year, President Joe Biden became the first president to proclaim the federal Columbus Day holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day. He did so again this year. He also issued proclamations in 2021 and 2022 that recognize Columbus Day as a federal holiday, a status that Indigenous Peoples Day does not yet have.

Kenney signed an executive order last year changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on the city government calendar.