PHILADELPHIA — A statue of Christopher Columbus can remain in South Philadelphia, a judge ruled, reversing the city’s decision to remove it after the explorer became a focus of protesters amid nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice after the police killing of George Floyd.
Last year’s decision to remove the now-boarded-up statue from Marconi Plaza was unsupported by law and based on insufficient evidence, Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick said.
“It is baffling to this court as to how the city of Philadelphia wants to remove the statue without any legal basis. The city’s entire argument and case is devoid of any legal foundation,” Patrick wrote.
The ruling Tuesday overturns a decision in September by a city licensing board that upheld a July 2020 decision by the city historical commission to remove the 144-year-old statue. The judge wrote that the city failed to provide an adequate opportunity for public input about its future.
A city representative expressed disappointment and officials were exploring all options “including a possible appeal.”
Attorney George Bochetto, who represents the Friends of Marconi Plaza, said the plaintiffs were “ecstatic.” He said he would immediately seek an order to remove a wooden box constructed by city crews around the statue following clashes between protesters and residents.
In Philadelphia, a city with a deep Italian heritage, supporters say they consider Columbus an emblem of that heritage. Mayor Jim Kenney said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.
After the June 2020 unrest, Kenney characterized removing the statue as a matter of public safety. Patrick, however, wrote that the city had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public, calling the confrontations “isolated civil unrest.”
In western Pennsylvania, a Columbus statue in a Pittsburgh park was also covered up last fall and its removal ordered, but a community group there also filed suit. A western Pennsylvania judge declared an impasse in June and sent the dispute to mediation.
Statues of Columbus were earlier removed in nearby Camden, N.J., and Wilmington, Del. In Richmond, Va., a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake. In Columbia, S.C., the first U.S. city named for Columbus, a statue of the explorer was removed after it was vandalized several times, and a vandalized statue in Boston also was removed from its pedestal.
Floyd died May 25, 2020, after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes even as he pleaded for air and stopped moving.