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Bill To Rename Columbus Obelisk To Honor Police Brutality Victims Passes Out Of Committee

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  Baltimore City Council is considering a bill to rename the Columbus Obelisk monument in Herring Run Park to honor the victims of police brutality. The move comes as cities across the country re-examine monuments during a summer of national reckoning with racial injustice. 

“This is not an attack on Italians. This is not an attack on white people,” insisted Councilman Ryan Dorsey of northeast Baltimore. “This is not an attack on history. This is us helping to right this ship that has been steered by white supremacy as a system.”

The Democrat introduced the legislation to rename the monument, which stands 44 feet high in the Northeast Baltimore park..

Originally, the white stucco obelisk stood at North Avenue and Harford Road. It was erected in 1792 and is the oldest U.S. monument to Columbus. In 2017, protestors took a sledgehammer to it, decrying the violence and slavery the explorer inflicted on indigenous people. Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation restored the monument afterward. 

“We have the opportunity here to say we don't need a Columbus monument, we don't want a Columbus monument,”  Dorsey said at a Tuesday hearing for the bill.  

Baltimoreans weighed in on the bill during  the public comment period of the virtual hearing,  their arguments mirroring the heated discourse about Columbus’s legacy that’s raged since protestors dragged a statue of the explorer from Little Italy into the Inner Harbor on the Fourth of July. 

Paul Kropfeld, a board member of the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland, said there’s a dark cloud hanging over Columbus at the moment.

“He's going to be challenged during the coming months because of what's happening across the country,” he said. “So I'm opposed to this monument being used for those reasons.”

Kropfeld thinks victims of police brutality deserve a monument, just not this one. Others, like Bill Blake of Baltimore, disagreed.

“I think the Italian Americans can find many, many, many people to celebrate,” he said. “Columbus should not be one. He was a perpetrator of genocide, racism, slavery and so on. I think it would be a step forward for all of us to no longer have monuments named after somebody like that.”

Activist Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West was killed by Baltimore police seven years ago, supported the bill. A memorial is long overdue, she said.

“A sacred place and having naming and honoring victims of police brutality would mean the world, not just to me, but for all the victims’ families,” she said. “When we just had my brothers’ seven year memorial commemoration, I had no place to go. I had to go back to the actual place where my brother was murdered and it just broke my heart.”

Nicolino Applauso, secretary of the Board of Governors of the Italian American Civic Club of Maryland, said the obelisk has important historical value and joined Kropfeld in saying that a monument for victims of police brutality is needed, but not through the bill. 

“Tawanda Jones and others… they’re being shortchanged by this legislation,” Applauso said. “If you want a beautiful dress, what do you do? You go to a tailor and get a beautiful dress, you do not go to the secondhand store and get a used pair of shorts.”

Ultimately, the Housing and Urban committee disagreed with Krupfeld and Applauso. Dorsey and fellow Democrats passed the bill, which will now head to the full city council for a second reading.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.