Many of the people driving cars past Marconi Plaza had a message.
Some that drove down Broad Street on a sunny Tuesday afternoon honked in approval of the Christopher Columbus statue, or perhaps for the South Philadelphians who had gathered to keep their watchful eyes upon it.
Others motorists shouted obscenities — and received some back — before zooming down the highway.
The Christopher Columbus statue still stands overlooking the grassy fields of Marconi Plaza, although the explorer’s view is now obscured by wooden planks surrounding the statue in the effort to protect it until further critical decisions are made.
The statue is seen as a treasure among most local Italian Americans, who occupy a large percentage of South Philadelphia. Sculpted in 1876, it was originally located in Fairmount Park until it was moved to Marconi Plaza in 1982. The marble statue was originally purchased for $18,000 with money raised by Italian Americans and the Columbus Monument Association, donated to the city to support the cultural history of the immigrant Italian community and respond to discrimination against Italians.
“It’s American history,” said a resident at Marconi Plaza who declined to be identified. “They don’t teach about Italian history in schools unless it’s mafia (stuff). But it’s out there, look it up. You can read a nice bit about how Italians were part of (one of) the largest mass lynchings in American history.”
Protesters think the monument represents the darker side of Columbus, who recorded instances of slavery and mass killings of natives upon his visit to the New World more than 500 years ago. The protesters want Columbus removed.
Although Columbus’ name has sparked debate for years around the country, the controversy around the statue intensified in response to the unlawful killing of George Floyd and weeks of protests in Philadelphia that have followed his death. And it has become the symbol of a tug-of-war between the South Philly community and Mayor Jim Kenney, who sought to remove the statue.
“Surely, the totality of this history must be accounted for when considering whether to maintain a monument to this person,” Kenney said in a statement. “Given that many are now calling for the removal of the statue, and others believe it should remain, I have directed the Art Commission to review the statue, its location, and its appropriateness in a public park. We are committed to listening to all points of view and moving forward in the best way to heal our deep divides.”
Those divides became visual and physical as protesters and residents have clashed in recent weeks. Groups of residents — some armed — have congregated in large numbers to protect their neighborhood’s landmarks. Often organizing through social media, similar groups successfully defended the Target store at Snyder Plaza from looting during the early stages of the protests.
Kenney has labeled the residents as vigilantes and ordered them to stand down on multiple occasions. He hopes his effort to hide the Columbus statue will bring about peace at Marconi.
“It’s also my hope that by initiating this process, the current tensions in Marconi Plaza can end,” Kenney said. “I urge all South Philadelphians attempting to protect the statue to stand down and have your voices heard through the public process.”
Tensions escalated on June 14, as altercations between protesters and anti-protesters became physical. A woman named Amanda, who lives in Lower Moyamensing and asked that her last name not be used for fear of retaliation, was there with friends who oppose the statue. She claims she was pepper sprayed and assaulted, both physically and sexually, by the men who were there to protect the statue. Her video footage shows her group being pushed out into a busy intersection of traffic. She said one of her friends suffered a broken nose.
“We were thrown into cars and burned with cigarettes,” she said. “It shifted from feeling unsafe and uncomfortable to life threatening in five to 10 minutes.”
Residents at the scene say they are protecting their neighborhood from outsiders, who are coming into South Philly to loot and vandalize.
Amanda said they’ve gone too far.
“I want people to not hate South Philly,” she said. “I want it to be a place that is welcoming to all people and a place that loves our neighbors and a place that doesn’t excuse police brutality and racist vigilante mobs. I think a lot of these people are reacting to changes in the world that they feel threatened by. The South Philly I know and love is the one that is for white working-class people, black working-class people, immigrants and women, and that’s the South Philly I’m going to keep fighting for.”
In the meantime, South Philadelphians had another fight on their hands, as longtime Police Capt. Lou Campione was transferred out of the city’s 1st Police District, which encompasses the west side of Broad Street below Moore Street. Campione’s transfer added another layer of tension in South Philly, as he was beloved by many residents.
The peculiar timing of the transfer comes days after his district was criticized for inactivity when residents became physical with protesters near the statue.
Videos have circulated of police standing idle as residents took matters into their own hands, using force to intimidate protesters. News of Campione’s transfer to the Northeast section of the city surfaced on Monday night, and residents staged a rally for the 43-year veteran at Marconi on Tuesday evening.
“When I heard about it, I was devastated,” said resident Clare Simon, who brought signs in support of Campione. “If you needed him at 4 o’clock in the morning, he’d help you. It’s not fair. I think he handled the job pretty well. When I heard he was transferred, I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I don’t know what the mayor is thinking. I don’t know what’s going on.”
The Police Department said Campione’s transfer was one of several command changes across the department. Officers at Marconi Plaza on Tuesday said they had not heard of who will replace Campione.
“This is unjust what they are doing to him,” another resident said. “If you sat with him for just five minutes, you would see the good come out of him. He cares about the community big time.”
The Packer Park Civic Association has circulated an online petition to have Campione reinstated, and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 issued a statement criticizing Campione’s transfer.
“A 43-year veteran of the department, Captain Campione is well respected by his Officers, fellow commanders and most importantly the community he has served tirelessly,” the statement read. “Captain Campione’s dedication to the community he serves is second to none and he is the gold standard in police commands.”
The statement criticized the mayor and police department administration.
“The Mayor and Police leadership are more concerned with appeasing the anarchist mobs descending upon our city and less concerned about our citizens, our neighbors and the overall public safety of our great city.”