It's Not About the Statue
Marconi Plaza on June 6 was humid and tense. As I walked across the grass towards the growing commotion on the north side of the park, I could hear the shouting from two separate groups rising to a heated crescendo.
“You’re not from here!” an older man shouted. He was screaming at a girl who couldn’t have been older than 25, carrying a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign. “Go back to your penthouse!”
“I’m from two blocks down, I live here!” the girl shouts back, refusing to back down. They are separated by a line of Philadelphia SWAT officers wearing riot helmets and holding batons. The older man pushes against them, trying half-heartedly to cross the security line.
“You should die here, too!” the man shouts back. He looks angry. He’s holding a golf club in one hand, I notice. The police do nothing.
That was the story a dozen times over a dozen different shouting matches this summer as right-wing vigilantes clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in the shadow of the Christopher Columbus statue in the center of Marconi Plaza. The statue, originally erected in 1976, inexplicably became a lightning rod for controversy last month as protesters toppled statues venerating colonizers, slavers, and Confederate leaders across the country. The protests in Philadelphia, which exploded into violence five days after Floyd’s killing, have mostly been confined to the City Hall area. However, that didn’t stop groups of civilians, who often identified themselves as “defending their community” from gathering multiple times around direct calls to engage in vigilante justice. On May 31, approximately thirty members of local Facebook group “Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back” gathered past curfew outside the Target on City Avenue in order to defend it from the looting that had spread through Center City. Some carried golf clubs and baseball bats, leading to tense confrontations with BLM demonstrators. Two days later, only hours after Philadelphia Police had executed a tear gas attack against nearly a thousand trapped protesters occupying I-676, a similar group of nearly a hundred vigilantes patrolled the streets of Fishtown past curfew with the tacit permission of PPD. Again they carried bats and golf clubs, and even attacked a WHYY reporter and his girlfriend on the street. Again, the police did not intervene.
All this set the stage for the conflict that exploded on Saturday, June 13, when around two dozen South Philadelphia residents gathered to defend the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. They were responding to reports from the “Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back” Facebook group that BLM demonstrators planned to vandalize or damage the statue as part of a protest. Again some held bats and clubs, and at least one demonstrator open-carried a semi-automatic rifle. Vigilantes harassed and again attacked a journalist, slashing the tires on his bike with a knife. The next night, police stood by and watched as members of the raucous crowd punched and pushed multiple people into the street, including the same journalist they attacked the night before, as well as a protester who suffered a broken nose and cracked teeth. The next day the city made the decision to place a plywood box around the Columbus statue in the name of preservation. It was still in the process of going up the next day, when South Philly residents gathered in the park to protest the removal of Captain Louis Campione, a PPD officer who was reassigned from the neighborhood due to public criticism. This rally was reportedly attended by members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys, an SPLC-designated hate group. The two groups were separated by metal barricades, but skirmishes continued to bely the tension bubbling on either side of the line of riot police.
By the next week, the city had announced plans to remove the statue from the park. "Clashes between individuals who support the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza and those who are distressed by its existence have deteriorated, creating a concerning public safety situation that cannot be allowed to continue," Mayor Kenney said. "We must find a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of others that come from different backgrounds."
All the excitement in the park has died down, for the most part. Only fragments remain - a string of Italian flags draped over the metal barricades flutter in the wind. Someone tagged the street with “BLM” during the action, presumably in spray paint - it’s been washed away, and now only the faint outline remains. Above it all, the box looms, obscuring the source of the tension.
This isn’t a story with an ending, at least not yet. Regardless of whether or not the Arts Commission removes the statue remains to be seen, but it really doesn’t matter. After all, it’s not really about the statue. That was a common refrain over the last month, as residents took to the streets to protest what they viewed as a wave of looting and rioting tied to the massive BLM protests sweeping the country. But what kept the clashes escalating well into the second week of June, more than two weeks after dozens of stores were looted during the first hectic days of the protests?
It’s not about the statue.