CHICAGO -- Two statues of Christopher Columbus that stood in Chicago parks were taken down early Friday at the direction of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a week after protesters trying to topple one of the monuments to the Italian explorer clashed with police.
Crews used a large crane to remove the statue in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park from its pedestal. A small crowd cheered and passing cars honked as the statue came down about 3 a.m. The second statue was removed about 5:30 a.m. from Arrigo Park in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood.
In a statement issued after the statues were taken down, the Democratic mayor's office said they were being “temporarily removed ... until further notice.” It said the removals were “in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police, as well as efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner.”
“This step is about an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” the mayor’s office said in the statement, which said the statues were removed following “consultation with various stakeholders.”
The statues' removal came after hundreds of protesters gathered Thursday night near Lightfoot's home to call for defunding the Chicago Police Department. The crowd cheered when an activist used a megaphone to inform them that Lightfoot would be removing the Grant Park statue.
“Thank you for the statue, now defund CPD,” the protesters shouted after an organizer led the crowd in a celebratory chant, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Plans to remove the Grant Park statue were first reported Thursday night by the Chicago Tribune and the removal followed hours of vocal confrontations between opponents and supporters of the statue. On July 17, protesters had clashed with police, who used batons to beat people and made arrests after they say protesters targeted them with fireworks, rocks and other items.
“This statue coming down is because of the effort of Black and Indigenous activists who know the true history of Columbus and what he represents,” Stefan Cuevas-Caizaguano, a resident watching the removal, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Both the Grant Park and Arrigo Park statues were vandalized last month. Statues of Columbus have also been toppled or vandalized in other U.S. cities as protesters have called for their removal, saying that Columbus is responsible for the genocide and exploitation of native peoples in the Americas.
Pasquale Gianni of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans said the mayor had told him ahead of time that both statues would be moved and temporarily housed elsewhere for public safety reasons.
“The Italian American community feels betrayed. The mayor’s office is giving into a vocal and destructive minority. This is not how the democratic process is supposed to work," he told WLS-TV.
During a Friday news conference in Arrigo Park in front of the fenced-in pedestal that once held that park’s Columbus statue, activist Raul Montes Jr. called for Lightfoot to resign for ordering the removal of the two statues. He said the statues' removal was an insult to Italian Americans who helped “build this country.”
“She has erased history and this is a slap in the face of Italian Americans. ... We want justice,” Montes said to applause by others gathered at the park.
Lightfoot and the city planned to announce a process “to assess each of the monuments, memorials, and murals across Chicago’s communities, and develop a framework for creating a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity,” the mayor's office added in its statement.
The removals come amid a plan by President Donald Trump to dispatch federal law enforcement agents to the city to respond to gun violence, prompting worries that the surge will inhibit residents’ ability to hold demonstrations. Activist groups filed suit Thursday, seeking to block federal agents to combat violent crime from interfering in or policing protests.
State officials in Oregon sued for similar requests following the arrival of federal law enforcement after weeks of protests in Portland following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
This story has been corrected to indicate that the lawsuit by activists was filed Thursday, not Wednesday.