Philadelphia, PA – Marconi Plaza has served as the gathering site for right-wing South Philly residents this past weekend. Members of the crowd were predominantly of Italian-American heritage, reflecting the ethnic composition and culture of some of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Two weeks ago the city of Philadelphia removed a statue of ex-police chief and ex-mayor Frank Rizzo. Five days later, on June 7, the city painted over the Rizzo mural that had been subjected to years of regular defacement by anti-racist and LGBTQ+ community members. Though in the 1970s Rizzo was celebrated as a success by local Italian-American residents, his legacy is mostly known in the form of the 1985* Philly Police bombing of a Black residential neighborhood, home to Black liberation group MOVE.
Monuments to historical figures such as Christopher Columbus have been targeted with defacement and removal over the past two weeks across the United States, such as in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Indigenous community members worked together to rip a Columbus statue from the state capitol grounds.
Philadelphia has two memorials to Columbus: a monument at Penn’s landing, and a statue in Marconi Plaza in South Philly. Marconi Plaza is namesake to Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, a Nobel Prize winner for his work in radio communications as well as a passionate fascist collaborator who helped Benito Mussolini’s regime implement anti-semitic policies.
After rumors swirled—primarily in neighborhood Facebook groups—that Mayor Jim Kenney may order the removal of the statue, some South Philly residents congregated in the public plaza in a show of support for the statue to remain.
Unicorn Riot documented the scene over the weekend. Many residents had armed themselves with baseball bats, sticks, and golf clubs, and at least one man was visibly armed with some kind of rifle. Bats were observed hidden around the area on Sunday.
Several guns, bats and sticks carried by white vigilantes here at Columbus square in South Philly to “protect” the Columbus statue. Police have been visibly quite friendly with this group pic.twitter.com/tu3IRZLHs7
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) June 14, 2020
Several of those gathered told our reporter on the scene that the Columbus statue represents their Italian heritage. A century ago, anti-Italian sentiment bubbled in the United States as hundreds of thousands emigrated from Italy, fleeing desperate conditions during World War I. Congress’ Immigration Act of 1924 severely constricted immigration from countries with high Catholic and Jewish populations — allowing in 4,000 emigrants per year from Italy, just 2% of the yearly average from a decade earlier — as well as immigration from all other places that weren’t northwestern European countries with an Anglo-Saxon populace.
When our reporter asked about the personal acts of brutality and torture perpetuated against Native people more than 500 years ago by Cristoforo Colombo (Columbus’ name in Italian), some South Philly residents espoused racist sentiments against Indigenous people, while others denied the atrocities had ever taken place.
Some of the right-wing crowd were there for reasons other than protecting the statue. Some in the crowd wore matching ‘I Stand With Frank Rizzo’ pro-police shirts, along with pro-Trump t-shirts and several Trump flags.
Many Columbus statue protectors (perhaps a misnomer as many have said “I don’t give a fuck about the statue”) wore matching Frank Rizzo shirts tonight.
Rizzo, former mayor & police chief, famously imposed a regime of systematic racist & homophobic police brutality in Philly. pic.twitter.com/0hy7BgIslS
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) June 15, 2020
The South Philly vigilantes often approached anyone entering the area, inquiring where they lived and harassing them as not being “from here” if they weren’t recognized. Racist and sexist slurs were used freely by the men and women confronting various passers-by.
Mayor Kenney tweeted that the vigilantism is “inappropriate” and warned that it brings “more danger to themselves and the city.”
Our reporter on the scene, Christopher Schiano, was assaulted multiple times on both Saturday and Sunday night by many of those who had gathered in Marconi Plaza. The tires to his bicycle were slashed on Saturday, and on Sunday one man damaged the camera Chris was using to document events.
Racist vigilantes gathering with bats and guns at the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Square in South Philadelphia, some of them just assaulted our reporter pic.twitter.com/kvUn9dLTaV
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) June 14, 2020
After multiple Philly police officers witnessed the violence against our reporter Saturday evening, Philadelphia Police Captain Louis Campione threatened Chris with arrest if he did not comply with Campione’s order to disperse.
Over both days other community members gathered in opposition to Frank Rizzo and Christopher Columbus, as well as to protect others in the neighborhood from harassment and bullying. “Most of the screaming I heard was from the people who want to keep the statue,” said local resident Mark Dougherty, adding that the gathered vigilantes were heard chanting, “USA!”
Content Warning: Unicorn Riot’s video below contains mob violence, direct threats of rape and bodily harm, and bigoted language. Unicorn Riot is releasing this footage due to the public safety threat posed by vigilante violence by individuals as captured on camera.
On Monday, June 15, Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson (D-52) issued a statement in response to the weekend of violence in South Philly, remarking that the city’s reaction to the vigilantism was a “stark contrast” to its reaction towards Black Lives Matter protesters.
“This country may have amended the Constitution to correct the blatant disregard of Black lives during its founding, but we have not done the work to change the perceptions and systems that continue to make it possible.” — Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson
She stressed that the country’s laws, as well as the application of the law, must be “applied consistently and do not disproportionately harm Black people.” Gilmore Richardson added that the threats and attacks towards reporters were “completely unacceptable” and that the freedom of the press must be upheld.
As of Tuesday reports continue coming in of assaults and attacks that have been made by vigilantes surrounding the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza.
In a letter to Public Art Director Margot Berg, Mayor Kenney asked Ms. Berg to “initiate as soon as possible the public process through the Art Commission” regarding the possible removal of the statue.
“I believe that a public process, allowing for all viewpoints, especially those of indigenous people whose ancestors suffered under the rule of European settlers, to be in the best interest of the City.” — Philadelphia Mayor Kenney
As of Monday, June 15, an investigation is ongoing in the Philadelphia Police Department regarding the lack of police interference in the violent vigilante behavior over the past three days. Captain Campione has been transferred out of South Philly’s 1st district, where he had worked for the past 10 years in his 40+-year-long career as a Philadelphia police officer.
It remains to be seen whether the Columbus statue in Philadelphia will stay. For now the demonstrated willingness of the armed vigilantes to use violence to keep others away from the Columbus statue may prevent anti-racist community members from toppling the statue themselves, but the city of Philadelphia may yet act to remove the memorial to a man responsible for Indigenous genocide as unrest over systemic racism continue rippling through the country.
*Editor’s note: though Frank Rizzo was no longer mayor of Philadelphia in 1985, it was not for lack of trying — he tried to have term limits overturned, appealing to white Philadelphia residents to “vote white” and change the law to keep him as mayor. As both police chief and mayor he exhibited a pattern of well-documented discrimination against African-American community members, including MOVE; in a piece published on the Philadelphia Historical Society the primary motivation of Frank Rizzo was “to end the Black Power movement in Philadelphia before it started.“
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