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Protesters gathered for and against the removal of Syracuse's Columbus statue on Saturday

A man with his back to the camera carries a sign, another man talking to him holds an Italian flag
Avery Gingerich
Dozens of protesters against, and a smaller of protestors for, the removal of the Columbus statue gathered in from Columbus Circle on Saturday

Ahead of Columbus Day, this weekend saw dueling demonstrations around his monument in downtown Syracuse. Three months after a state appellate court ruled that Mayor Ben Walsh has the power to remove it — several dozen were there on Saturday fighting to preserve the statue; a smaller group, to tear it down.

The morning was mostly peaceful, until the pro- and anti-statue groups started mingling towards the end of the event. The conversations were mostly amicable except for a few members of both groups who began yelling at each other. Shortly thereafter, half a dozen police officers arrived and separated them, and the situation quickly died down.

Retired politician Nick Pirro was not part of that exchange, and before it even took place, the member of the board of the Columbus Monument Corporation, which sued the city over the statue, said Columbus is being used as a “scapegoat” for things the U.S. government did.

The former Onondaga County Executive points out that the Genoan navigator never set foot in America, unlike many others who did.“This is really a tribute to immigrants, not to Columbus. This was put up by the immigrants who came to this area and were very proud of it,” Pirro said. “And in ’92, when we had the quincentennial, it was dedicated to the immigrants. Not to any individual, like we normally do.”

Pirro said the Columbus statue represents all those who made Syracuse great and that, in endorsing its removal, Walsh has ignored alternatives that would protect the city’s history.

Meanwhile, the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), of the Syracuse Peace Council, led a small counterprotest across the street. NOON’s Andy Mager says changing views about Columbus and America’s history — and about honoring the country’s indigenous peoples — have been decades in the making.

“For a long time, it felt that it was immovable, that there was no way in a community with such a strong Italian presence that the statue would come down. But after George Floyd's murder and the broader racial justice, reckoning, more people began to talk about the statue. And here we are at a point where it's coming down,” Mager said.

According to WSYR, however, the Corporation is fighting the ruling that would allow Walsh to remove the statue.

The city is proposing to combine Columbus Circle and a neighboring park into a new Heritage Park. The statue of Columbus would be replaced by monuments to multiple immigrant communities, including Italians and the Onondaga Nation.

Natasha Senjanovic teaches radio broadcasting at the Newhouse School while overseeing student journalists at WAER and creating original reporting for the station. She can also be heard hosting All Things Considered some weekday afternoons.