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Scuffles Between Opposing Protesters Mark Removal Of New Haven's Columbus Statue

In the heart of Wooster Square, New Haven’s historically Italian American neighborhood, the statue of Christopher Columbus has come down after more than 125 years -- to the cheers of a crowd of mostly younger New Haven residents and laments of some older Italian Americans.

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Last week, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker announced in a statement that he’d support the removal of the Columbus statue. This decision came after several petitions calling for the statue’s removal garnered significant support, including from a number of local Italian American groups and community leaders. In a June 15 statement, Elicker said that while the statue was symbolic for many Italians, it “also represents a time of colonialism and atrocities committed.”

With the statue’s imminent removal expected Wednesday morning, a group of Italian American residents from New Haven and surrounding towns arrived at Wooster Square Park to protest the change. 

Many who showed up were older residents who had grown up in the neighborhood. They said they felt this was an attack on their Italian American identity. 

“I’m upset for the fact they’re taking down this statue of Christopher Columbus,” said Rose Monaco, who grew up in New Haven and often came to the park as a child. “Good, bad or indifferent, this is part of my heritage; this is part of the history, and I feel as though they’re taking away all history.” 

Monaco was one of several protesters who held signs reading “Where’s Rosa?” referring to New Haven’s U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has recently supported the statue’s removal.

As the morning wore on, two new protesters arrived in the park, this time in support of the statue’s removal. 

The scene grew tense as white pro-Columbus protesters confronted the counterprotesters, who were young people of color. Members of the pro-Columbus group confronted the new protesters with belligerent language, and a number of individuals from both groups exchanged profanities. A short scuffle ensued, though the incident was ultimately defused as New Haven Police Department officers rushed over. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Los Fidel, an anti-statue protester, was grabbed, shoved and had a beverage thrown at him by statue supporters within minutes of him confronting them in the park. He was punched in the back of the head, and a brief scuffle ensued. Police formed a wall between the two groups, and Fidel stayed in the park to continue to talk to pro-statue protesters.

After a video of the incident circulated on social media, the much larger crowd of protesters converged on the park, most of them supportive of the statue’s removal. Meanwhile, a crane and cherry picker arrived at the site, and city workers began to prepare the statue for removal while protesters chanted “Tear it down!” and occasionally “Off with his head!”

Nicolas Phillips has lived in Wooster Square for five years and came out to voice his support of taking down the statue. Phillips is Puerto Rican and says that he feels like the Indigenous culture that’s part of his heritage was stolen from him by European colonists. 

“Every day I walk my dog under the shadow of that statue,” he said. “As someone of Indigenous descent, I think about what that statue means to me, and I’ve always despised that thing. And I couldn’t be happier to be here today watching it come down. And I do hope they replace it with a more worthy Italian representative. I know that’s important to this neighborhood. But I’m glad to see Columbus is going to be gone.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
A city worker straps on ropes to secure the statue before its removal. The city's decision to remove the statue came after several petitions calling to take it down received significant support from members of the community and local Italian American groups.

A worker on the cherry picker wrapped straps around the statue and attached them securely to the hook of the crane overhead, a process that took several hours. Some pro-removal protesters grew impatient with the progress, though a woman told the crowd over a bullhorn “we ain’t going nowhere” until the statue came down.

Finally, around 1 p.m., the crane began to raise the statue off its plinth. The crowd cheered, and the crane slowly carried the hanging statue over the grass to where workers helped lower the statue onto the back of a New Haven Public Works truck. 

Native activist and New Haven political organizer Norm Clement spoke to a now-festive crowd, reminding them that removing the statue of Christopher Columbus was ultimately about recognizing the atrocities committed against Native peoples during European colonization of the Americas. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Native American activist and political organizer Norm Clement burns white sage as the crowd waited for the statue to be removed. He reminded the protesters that taking down the statue was ultimately about recognizing the atrocities committed against Native peoples during European colonization of the Americas.

“I want to take a minute to pray for the Quinnipiac People, who were murdered on this land right here,” Clement said. 

As the statue was loaded onto the public works truck, the crowd began to disperse. 

Elicker spoke about the statue’s removal at a news conference later in the afternoon.

“Leadership in [the] Italian community spearheaded this effort,” he said. ”There were no arrests even though there were intense feelings. But overall when we step back, I think we can be proud that we did this in a way that was a collaborative and successful moment.” 

According to a news release from the mayor’s office, the statue will remain in the city’s custody. The city has not decided where the statue will ultimately be housed, though according to a city spokesperson, the Italian American Heritage Group of New Haven has suggested it be placed in the Knights of Columbus Museum.

Ryan Caron King contributed to this reporting.

Carmen Baskauf was a producer for Connecticut Public Radio's news-talk show Where We Live, hosted by Lucy Nalpathanchil from 2017-2021. She has also contributed to The Colin McEnroe Show.

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