As demonstrations across the United States draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice, many protesters have reignited the debate over the historical figures the country chooses to memorialize.
Some protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others have included people toppling or defacing monuments for Confederate generals and soldiers who fought the Civil War to preserve slavery. Those post-war tributes are associated with larger systems of white supremacy, protesters have argued, and that’s why they have to come down.
Against the backdrop of those ongoing and overlapping discussions, Councilman Ryan Dorsey (District 3) last night introduced a bill to rededicate one of three monuments in the city for explorer Christopher Columbus–an obelisk in Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park– as the Police Violence Victims Monument.
For years, Indigenous people and their supporters have criticized the legacy of the Italian explorer who, with his crew, killed and enslaved thousands of native people after landing in the Americas during the 15th century.
“It’s just overdue that we address that we have monuments that continue to perpetuate propagandism and revisionist history that holds up history’s villains as heroes,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey told Baltimore Fishbowl that while victims of police brutality have received greater attention during protests over the past month, they have largely not been given the awareness they deserve.
Unlike other monuments, which bear the likeness of the individual they are paying homage to, the obelisk is faceless, and rededicating the pillar presents an opportunity to assign it a new meaning, Dorsey said.
“We have the opportunity to allow it to stand for something just, something to draw attention to injustice and to honor those that have been lost or who have survived being attacked by police and those who, as family, continue to mourn the loss of family members,” he said.
The bill was assigned to the council’s Housing and Urban Affairs committee for a hearing. If the bill passes out of committee, it will head to the full council for a vote.
The obelisk, erected in 1792 as a gift from the French consul to the city, was attacked nearly three years ago. A man who self-identified as “Ty” took a sledgehammer to a plaque dedicating the monument to the explorer. “Sacred to the Memory of Chris. Columbus Oct. XII MDCC VIIIC,” the text of the plaque read.
“Racist monuments to slave owners and murderers have always bothered me. Baltimore’s poverty is concentrated in African-American households, and these statues are just an extra slap in the face,” Ty said in the video, which has since been made private. “They were built in the 20th century in response to a movement for African Americans’ human dignity. What kind of a culture goes to such lengths to build such hate-filled monuments? What kind of a culture clings to those monuments in 2017?”
A separate individual held a sign that read “Racism, tear it down,” and another sign was taped to the monument reading “The future is racial and economic justice.”
Local activist group Baltimore Bloc on Sunday called on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to have the city remove two Columbus statues in the city, one in Druid Hill Park and the other at the Inner Harbor.
“we don’t think these Columbus monuments have much time left anymore,
@mayorbcyoung 72 hours sounds like plenty of time for y’all to take them down. can’t guarantee they’ll still be standing after that,” Baltimore Bloc tweeted.
A picture showed the one near the Harbor, just across the street from Little Italy, with an orange traffic cone on its head, which the group called a “klan kone” in reference to the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2019, someone hung a pair of fake severed hands on the same statue.
Baltimore Bloc renewed their call on Monday, giving Young 48 hours to “decide if the city will remove these racist monuments or if you’re leaving it up to The People to handle.”
A representative from Young’s office told the Baltimore Brew the mayor is aware of the posts but declined to say if any actions are being taken.
Elsewhere in the city, someone splashed red paint onto a stone monument for George Washington in Druid Hill Park over the weekend and wrote “Destroy Racists” and “BLM, F*** 12” on the statue’s base, according to multiple reports.
Some Italian-Americans across the country have urged their governments to keep Columbus statues and repair any damages. But others have joined calls to do away with the monuments to the famous Italian, saying that he does not represent their values.
On Monday night, after the council hearing, Dorsey tweeted that a neighbor lured him outside by repeatedly blowing a whistle, brought his German Sheppard close and harassed the councilman by calling him a “faggot” and saying, “You’re messing with the Italians.”
A neighbor blew a whistle in front of my house tonight until I came out looking for somebody in distress. He then brought his German Sheppard within a foot of me, repeatedly called me a faggot while flashing a light in my face and said, “you’re messing with the Italians.”
— Ryan Dorsey (@ElectRyanDorsey) June 23, 2020
Prior to the council meeting, Dorsey and four people who have either lost loved ones to police violence or been the victim of it gathered in front of the obelisk.
Marah O’Neal, whose children’s father, Jamaal Taylor, was killed by county police in September 2019, said she supported removing or renaming monuments to people like Columbus.
The values of some of these historic figures run counter to the ideals that the United States is meant to uphold, she said.
“America is supposed to be the home of the free. But the people that’s on these pedestals, that’s supposed to be representing America, were not for freedom for all people,” she said. “The people that’s fighting for our freedom, that’s helping us get a voice … those people should be the ones on it because they represent freedom.”
Darlene Cain, whose son Dale Graham was killed by Baltimore City police in 2008, said renaming the monument will help residents remember people like her son.
“We need to have our loved ones’ names up there so people know who we are,” she said.
Tawanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West, who was killed by Baltimore Police Department and Morgan State University officers in July 2013, said the coronavirus, which has disproportionately impacted people of color, and the renewed attention on police brutality have been like “a pandemic on top of a pandemic” for Black people.
“Now the world is watching,” she said.
Both Cain and Jones said the video footage of the moments leading up to Floyd’s death, showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, stirred up emotions about the loss of their loved ones. Floyd shouted numerous times “I can’t breathe!” and called out for his deceased mother.
“When I saw that video, it opened up a lot of wounds because as a mother I don’t know what my son’s last words were,” Cain said.
“You have a grown man that’s actually screaming for his dead mom,” Jones said. “That makes all the victims think ‘What was my brother’s last thoughts?’ Or if it was their son or daughter, ‘What was their final thought?’”
Jones has held a vigil for her brother every Wednesday for the past seven years, which she calls “West Wednesdays,” to keep her brother’s memory alive and to demand accountability for the police officers involved in his death.
An independent autopsy found West died of asphyxiation while being restrained during a fatal traffic stop in 2013, not a heart condition as the state’s autopsy determined.
Abdul Salaam, who was beaten by officers during a traffic stop in 2013, said there should be monuments for people like Jones and Cain, who have spoken out against police brutality for years before these recent protests.
“There are few individuals that spoke truth consistently,” he said. “There are few individuals that spoke truth when truth was dark to speak, when it was not popular, when it was looked down and frowned upon, when individuals were looked at as crazy and insane. It is time to ensure that we champion those individuals.”
Salaam added that Baltimore has been one of the “linchpin spirits” of what he calls the “New Civil Rights Movement,” and that Jones has been the “heart and soul” of police accountability efforts in Baltimore.
Removing or renaming monuments and protesting in the streets is just a start, Jones said.
“They can take all the monuments down, but that hate is going to remain in people’s hearts,” she said. “They need to change the way they view us. We are human beings just like them. We deserve the pursuit of happiness. We deserve accountability and justice for all. Not just for some, but for all.”
In addition to defunding police departments and using those resources elsewhere, law enforcement agencies need to reopen cases in which people were killed by police to provide greater accountability, Jones said.
She added the Maryland General Assembly should repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR), a 1974 law that places restrictions on investigations of police misconduct.
“Until we knock down the officers’ bill of rights that places them above the law, nothing is going to change,” Jones said. “You’re going to constantly keep on having this repeat pattern and practice of history that’s been going on for a very long time of them killing us and nobody being held accountable.”
O’Neal said that until laws are in place to hold police more accountable, families of people killed by officers will continue to relive the pain of their loved ones’ deaths.
“The nightmare for my children is not over. My nightmare is not over,” she said. “We’re still at home crying. We’re still at home hurting. We still feel some type of way about this. We still want some type of accountability for their death.”