PHILADELPHIA — A late-night court decision Saturday allows Philadelphia to keep a plywood box over a controversial statue of Christopher Columbus on Broad Street.
The decision from Commonwealth Court vacated a Common Pleas Court decision earlier in the day that would have allowed the box, which has concealed the statue on Marconi Plaza in South Philly since summer 2020, to be removed immediately.
“Removing the plywood covering during this holiday weekend would pose a serious public safety risk,” city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said in a statement Saturday night. Earlier, he had said city officials would stop any attempt to remove the box prior to hearing from Commonwealth Court.
The city released the court decision shortly before 11 p.m. Eastern time, ending a day of legal wrangling over whether the statue would be visible this weekend. Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick issued an order Saturday afternoon that immediately permitted a contractor to remove the box. It was announced at a news conference at Marconi Plaza by an attorney for supporters of the statue who gathered at its base.
“I have a crew on standby,” attorney George Bochetto said, adding that they could remove the box “if not tonight, first thing tomorrow morning.”
City officials promptly filed an emergency application in Commonwealth Court to overrule Patrick’s decision.
“A key purpose of the box was to quell civil unrest and violence between groups of individuals on opposing sides of the debate over Columbus’s place in history,” the petition stated.
The wait for the Commonwealth Court decision left both sides in a stalemate with the holiday that in much of America bears Columbus’ name looming. By 9 p.m. Saturday, Bochetto and a small group, including former state Sen. Vince Fumo, were sitting by the statue eating pizza, waiting for word on whether they could remove the plywood covering. City police were nearby, and had erected fencing between the group and the statue.
“Grateful that the Commonwealth Court took the time to review this important matter tonight,” Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted late Saturday. “No action will be taken with respect to the statue at this time.”
Bochetto did not respond to a call late Saturday seeking a response to the Commonwealth Court decision.
As the nation grappled with monuments to controversial figures in summer 2020, the Columbus statue repeatedly attracted groups, some armed with baseball bats and hammers, who were accused of harassing and assaulting people protesting it.
City officials received permission from the Historical Commission to remove the statue in July 2020, and that remains the intention, they said Saturday. The statue still stands because of pending appeals.
Bochetto had said Friday: “We’re going to make sure that, by the time the Columbus Day parade concludes at Marconi Plaza on Sunday, that that box is down. If the city doesn’t take it down, we’ll take it down for them.”
Patrick on Friday had ordered the city to remove the box, which the city had appealed.
About two dozen people attended the news conference, where Bochetto’s comments were punctuated by calls to arrest Kenney and a cry of “Viva Columbus!” Behind Bochetto was the veiled statue, and in front of him an empty grandstand erected for Sunday morning’s Broad Street Run.
“It’s not right,” said Jody DellaBarba, an organizer of the planned Columbus parade Sunday who handed out Italian flags at the news conference. “It’s not right to go against an ethnic group.”
The 145-year-old statue was so important, she said, because Columbus, an Italian, traveled across the Atlantic in a journey that presaged her ancestors’ immigration to the United States.
“They came here and took a long journey by steerage,” DellaBarba said. “The symbolism of Columbus coming here, he’s on a boat for months and it’s the same kind of thing.”
Opposition to the statue has come from people who see Columbus as a representative of an era of atrocities and genocide that decimated Indigenous populations in the Americas. Supporters of the statue say Columbus’ own sins have been exaggerated, but accounts from his diaries and letters document the killing and enslavement of thousands, historians have said.
Friday and Saturday’s court action thrust the statue back into the news at the start of what for decades had been Columbus Day weekend. It became a flash point and was covered with plywood during racial justice protests last summer after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Then the Historical Commission voted to remove it, and the legal fight began.
City workers last year covered the statue with a box, which the Kenney administration said was meant to protect it while its fate was determined.
City officials described as “appalling” Patrick’s decision Saturday, which the city’s petition said came before they had time to respond to the request for permission to uncover the statue. Kenney earlier this year signed an executive order changing the name of the city’s annual October holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and protests were expected Sunday, the city’s petition stated. Participants in the Broad Street Run will pass the statue on the way to the finish line just two miles from Marconi Plaza.
“Uncovering the statue now risks triggering renewed violence that could easily spill out of control,” the petition stated.
Bochetto dismissed concerns about a violent reaction and suggested Saturday that addition rather than elimination should be the focus at Marconi Plaza.
“Why can’t they put up another statue right here to honor Indigenous people?” he said. “You let everybody celebrate their ethnicity.”
(Staff photographer Elizabeth Robertson contributed to this article.)