The toppling of a statue of Christopher Columbus at the State Capitol, one in a spate of attacks on historic monuments around the nation, has prompted state officials to revisit their policies on public art even as they investigate the activists involved in the incident in St. Paul.
“I understand First Amendment rights, but there’s a line there and when you cross it you’re held criminally responsible,” Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said Wednesday.
State investigators continue to try to determine who, beyond the American Indian Movement (AIM) official leading the protest, was involved in actually pulling down the statue two weeks ago. The investigation will then be turned over to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for possible charges.
Mike Forcia, the AIM Twin Cities chairman and leader of the protest group at the statue site the day it was toppled, said Wednesday that he is still expecting to face criminal charges for what happened. “I’ll accept it fully, whatever it is, 100 percent,” Forcia said. “Whatever has happened to me is of little consequence compared to the conversation the state needs to have about this.”
Forcia’s attorney, Jack Rice, said he hopes authorities are open to a resolution that would allow those who pulled down the statue to explain their reasons in a public forum.
But while officials prepare potential criminal charges, the state government board that manages statues and art on the Capitol grounds meets Thursday to initiate a discussion about the public monuments it displays.
The AIM protesters pulled down the nearly 90-year-old statue on June 10, citing long-standing grievances with the 15th-century Genoese explorer and early colonizer of the Americas. It was one of many statues on public grounds felled by protesters in the nationwide reckoning over institutional racism that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
The statue is now being held in an “undisclosed location,” according to Paul Mandell, the executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB). He said it would stay there while state leaders work on a new, more defined process for removing statues that offend modern sensibilities.
It’s a debate likely to echo around the country, as protesters target more and more statues for removal or defacement. In some cases, even the likenesses of historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant who supported the abolition of slavery have been pulled down.
The Minnesota architectural board has responsibility for the statues and art displayed around state government’s St. Paul campus. It is chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. A member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Flanagan said she was not sorry to see the statue fall.
In addition to discussions toward creating a petition process for removing statues, Mandell said Thursday’s meeting would include a more comprehensive discussion of what art gets displayed in and around the Capitol.
Under current law, Mandell said, anyone could request the removal of a statue, but there’s no clear criteria for the board to evaluate such requests. The board never received a formal request to remove the Columbus statue before its toppling, he said. “There were a number of years where it would be hit with red paint, a water balloon full of red paint, on Columbus Day,” Mandell said.
Native Americans have long taken issue with the now-discredited idea that Columbus “discovered” America. His critics also point to ample historical evidence that he enslaved native residents upon arriving in the West Indies in the 1490s, and employed violence and brutality to quell local uprisings.
Gov. Tim Walz said after the statue fell that he sympathized with the protesters’ motives but that there would be consequences for the civil disobedience.
The statue, erected in 1931, was commissioned by and paid for by a group that called itself Italian-Americans of Minnesota, Mandell said.
“It was in reaction to the anti-Italian attitudes in America at that time,” Mandell said. “They picked the most famous Italian they could to show that Italians had contributed to America. This was a different time, and views of Columbus were very different.”
The Italian-Americans of Minnesota continued for decades to raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the statue, which is standard for statuary on the statehouse grounds.
The group later renamed itself the Columbus Memorial Society. It formally dissolved only three years ago, said Kurt Vento, a longstanding member and brother of the late St. Paul congressman Bruce Vento.
“If they want to prosecute those people, that’s up to them,” Vento said. At least a few people contacted him to say they were upset at what happened to the statue, he said.
“I’m not an apologist for the things Columbus did. A great injustice was done to the American Indians,” Vento said. “I would say the Italian-Americans have a great deal of compassion for the American Indians, and we respect them as our brothers and sisters.”
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413