NEW HAVEN — The Christopher Columbus statue that overlooked Chapel Street from Wooster Square Park for nearly 130 years stood on its perch for the last time Wednesday.
But while cheers met the statue’s removal, it didn’t come down without a fight.
After word got out that the city planned to remove the statue Wednesday morning, a group of several dozen people came out to defend it and had formed a crowd of 40 to 50 people by about 6 a.m., according to police Capt. Anthony Duff.
Protesters who favored the statue’s removal began trickling in around 8:30 a.m., and tensions between the two sides led to confrontation and several skirmishes.
Over the next couple hours, the crowd grew and transformed, with around 150 people at the park by 10 a.m., according to an estimate from Duff.
By about 10:30, the vast majority of people present at the park expressed support for the statue’s removal. Many held signs supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and said the statue was a symbol of racism and genocide.
“Tear it down!” they yelled.
“A change is gonna come,” a woman with a megaphone sang.
Meanwhile, some of those at the park who said they are of Italian American heritage watched from the fence, angry at what was to unfold as a man in a hard hat prepared the statue for removal via crane.
After those defending the statue had gathered for at least two-and-a-half hours Wednesday, several anti-statue protesters arrived.
They got caught up in ensuing altercations. A New Haven Independent video shows how the skirmishes unfolded.
In the video, a man can be seen holding a sign above his head and criticizing Columbus’ legacy.
Eden Almasude, a Wooster Square resident, walked by during the events, she said. She saw a group of statue supporters surround the sign holder, including one man who hit the anti-statue protester’s sign with a cane, she said.
Almasude shared a clip of the incident with the Register.
The Independent’s video shows that a verbal argument took place between statue supporters, the sign holder and one other man who favored the removal of the statue.
The physical skirmish that ensued also was witnessed by a Register staffer on scene.
At the City Hall press conference, Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said there were no arrests made, although one man was detained.
There have been no decisions made on whether charges will be filed, Reyes said.
Mayor Justin Elicker said in a statement that it was “disappointing that some at the protest incited fighting. New Haven has a long history of lively dialogue, but violence has no place in our city. We face a very challenging moment in history. We must work as a community to listen, understand, and have respectful dialogue with each other. This moment, while challenging, is also an opportunity to bring people together.
The video of the skirmish prompted additional anti-statue activists to head to the park.
One was a man who declined to give his full name.
Around 10 a.m., a reporter saw the man get pushed by a police officer as the man stood next to the statue with a group of its defenders. The man said he was being pushed by a statue supporter when the officer pushed him, too.
“The officer physically separated would-be combatants and no arrests were made,” Duff said Wednesday evening.
The statue, erected in 1892, was iconic for much of the 40-acre neighborhood east of downtown, particularly Italian Americans who rally at the statue each Columbus Day, celebrating their heritage in the city.
But in recent years and days, Columbus, who sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, has become infamous for bringing imperialism, disease and racist violence to the New World, prompting calls to remove his image around the country.
In New Haven, Wilbur Cross High School junior Rhea McTiernan Huge circulated one petition asking for the statue’s removal, to which she attached her historical sources. That was signed by 667 residents. A second, similar petition got 2,041 signatures.
A group of Wooster Square neighborhood residents agreed to remove the statute earlier this month, with Mayor Justin Elicker praising the decision.
“The Christopher Columbus statue for many Italians is a celebration of Italian heritage. But the statue of Christopher Columbus also represents a time of colonialism and atrocities committed. It is the right decision to remove the statue,” Elicker said at the time. “After the statue is removed, I believe it is important that we, as a community, have a conversation about how to best honor the heritage of so many Italians who have made New Haven their home.”
Elicker reemphasized Wednesday that the decision to remove “the statue of Columbus today was one that was spearheaded by a group of leaders in the Italian community.”
“While this decision for those leaders was not easy, they courageously did the right thing,” Elicker said in a statement. “I support this decision. I want to take a moment to thank those leaders for their support in recognizing the history of colonialism and its negative effects on many cultures, and their help to identify a place where the statue can reside.”
Not everyone was happy with the decision, however.
By around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, about 40 protester who opposed the removal gathered had around the statue.
Several pro-statue protesters identified themselves as Italian American.
Peter Criscuolo, 70, of North Haven, said he grew up in the Wooster Square neighborhood and arrived at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when he heard a rumor that the statue would be taken down.
He said Columbus was only one of many who did things that were later seen in a negative light.
“If we’re looking for a hero that never did anything wrong, we’ll never find a hero,” Criscuolo said.
“The statue’s important to me because it’s my heritage,” he said. “I played here every single day when I left St. Michael’s School.” He said rather than take the statue down he would have preferred a plaque be added that presents other perspectives.
Rose Monaco, who said she used to live in New Haven, also came out to oppose the statue’s removal.
“This is part of our history, good, bad or indifferent,” she said. “You cannot just throw away history ... What he did was an important part of history. I don’t condone any bad things that occurred.”
“Believe me I don’t condone anything that was done to minorities. I don’t condone it. It’s awful,” Monaco continued, referring to the historical record of Columbus’ actions.
A sign Monaco carried read, “where’s Rosa?” in reference to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3.
Carl Murano, a North Haven resident who identified himself as president of the Campania club, said he grew up in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood and that his parents and grandparents lived in New Haven.
“The Italian Americans worked hard on this community,” he said. “Please allow us our heritage.”
The statue was erected around the time Murano’s relatives first moved to the city, he said, adding that the monument feels especially important to him because of his ancestry.
“As an American I respect Columbus because he opened up the Americas,” Murano said. “All the statues—they’re human beings, they have their faults... We should worship the good things they did and learn from the bad.”
Another protester who wanted the statue to stay up was Josephine Amarone of Hamden.
She grew up in New Haven, she said, and her grandparents raised their kids in Wooster Square, which she described as her father’s neighborhood. The family church is St. Michael’s, she said.
“My father’s passed and I’m here to represent him and his heritage,” Amarone said of why she showed up Wednesday.
Amarone believes the intent of the statue was “to welcome immigrants to our shores,” she said.
She has no ill feelings toward Columbus and does not believe the reports that Columbus was a racist, did bad things or killed native people, she said. “Even if he did, where is the relevance to today?” she asked
Of Wooster square, she said, “I feel a connection every time I come down here,” adding that being an Italian-American strengthens that feeling.
After the statue was removed, Elicker said that he knows “there are some people who strongly disagree with the decision to remove the statute. People have the right to protest and express their opinions peacefully.”
At a brief press conference at City Hall later Wednesday, Elicker said he would look for ways to engage the city’s Italian-American community to find an alternative way to celebrate the contributions of Italian-Americans to New Haven. However, he said, there is currently no process or plan for how the city would solicit feedback or to create a “community conversation.”
The mayor, who has been present at many of the protests, rallies, marches and mass gatherings that have occurred in the first six months of his tenure as mayor, was absent from Wednesday morning’s events. He said he made a decision that his presence was more likely to escalate an already tense situation.
Laura Florio Luzzi, board chairwoman of the Columbus Day Committee of Greater New Haven, released a statement about the events.
“It is time for our community to unite in embracing this moment of social change,” she said. “We welcome a dialogue with the City of New Haven and members of the Wooster Square community to discuss the future of the Columbus monument and what may come in its place to honor Italian-American heritage and our contribution to history.”
Alfonso Panico, former honorary vice consul of Italy for Connecticut and former president and chairman of the Board of the Columbus Day Committee of New Haven, said the statue removal marked a “sad day for me and the Italian community.”
Panico said the statue “was erected with great pride, with the funds raised by the Italian immigrants — our ancestors — to mark the 100 years since the discovery of our great country. I am very proud of the people who filed for the court injunction to keep the statue and I great respect for the small group of old timers from Wooster Street who were there trying to protect the statue showing their concerns and defend their heritage and pride.”
The morning of the protest was filled with heated debates.
Expletives were called out; someone screamed “you animals” into the crowd.
But by 10:30 a.m., the scene had taken on a different tone.
An estimated couple hundred onlookers who cheered the statue’s removal had taken over the park, singing songs and chanting as a crew brought in a crane and prepared the statue for removal.
“It’s one little victory at a time,” said Rickie Lookingcrow, who identified himself as full-blooded Passamaquoddy.
He did not think he would ever see the statue come down, he said.
The Rev. Kelcy Steele, who recently formed a coalition to fight racism, called the moment “a symbol of racism falling in New Haven.”
“It’s exhausting and revitalizing at the same time,” Steele said. “It’s long overdue.”