Columbus Day sparks US debate over history, race

By AFP/Catherine Triomphe   October 9, 2017 | 06:12 pm PT
Columbus Day sparks US debate over history, race
Mapuche Indian and other activists take part in a rally against Columbus Day in downtown Santiago, Chile The placard reads:
Should Christopher Columbus still be honored?

Coming on the heels of a growing movement to take down statues commemorating the pro-slavery Confederate Army from the civil war, it's a question many US cities are now asking themselves.

On Monday, crowds filled New York streets to recognize the so-called "man who discovered America," even as he is increasingly denounced as embodying the genocide of indigenous Americans.

Ruth Edelstein-Friedman watched from a folding camping chair while the traditional Columbus Day parade wound along a damp Fifth Avenue.

"We brought our children. We wanted them to see the parade and the statues and everything before they get rid of them," the retiree said.

A government holiday in the United States, Columbus Day is named for the explorer, from what is now Italy, who landed in the present-day Bahamas in 1492.

For Edelstein-Friedman and her husband Eduardo, who travelled specially from Miami, homages to Columbus could soon be a thing of the past.

And the controversy has only escalated following the August clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia where a liberal protester was killed at a white supremacist rally seeking to prevent the removal of statue of General Robert E. Lee, who led the southern Confederacy during the 19th century American Civil War.

However, no one has yet announced the end of the New York parade which, in good weather, draws more than a million spectators.

It is as much a celebration of New York's powerful Italian-American community, which is represented at its highest levels by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Both men proudly marched in Monday's parade.

President Donald Trump brushed aside criticism on Monday by describing the arrival of Columbus as "a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great nation."

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump cited no possible failings in the "discovery" of America.

Dozens of US cities have already replaced Columbus Day with one honoring indigenous people, after a 1992 initiative from the leftist bastion of Berkeley, California.

Over the past two years more than 50 cities across the country have followed. These include Los Angeles, the country's second-biggest city which voted in August to honor indigenous people and not the explorer.

New York's parade continues but, even there, the fate of its Columbus statues is uncertain.

One was erected in 1892 at the top of a 75-foot (23 meter) column above Columbus Circle at the foot of Central Park.

'Genocide' or 'revisionism' 

Last month somebody vandalized another Columbus monument, smaller and in the center of the park.

One of its hands was covered in red paint to protest the blood that the explorer had on his own hands, while graffiti on the plinth read: "Hate will not be tolerated."

On Monday a handful of protesters, who have arrived several times, gathered in front of the Columbus Circle statue to denounce "genocide" and "slavery."

Police now guard the statue daily.

Petitions and counter-petitions circulate, while the debate continues on Twitter where some denounce Columbus and seek the removal of statues but others condemn "the revisionism of history."

An electric nationwide debate over symbols of racism followed the Charlottesville violence.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured when 20-year-old James Fields allegedly drove into a crowd of protestors.

New York Mayor de Blasio in August named a commission to decide on the fate of controversial monuments.

It will announce its decisions in early December, a month after the municipal election in which de Blasio hopes for a second mandate.

Given this, some people like Laura Scheyer and her husband Steve Cohn see the New York parade as something to be preserved.

The couple were spending several days in New York after arriving from Seattle, where Columbus Day is no longer celebrated.

"Every country has had problems with its history, where they suppressed people," Cohn said.

The parade "is people having fun, and we all deserve a little fun when you look at the world today, don't you think?"

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