When the large crowd of protesters outside Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home heard the news late Thursday she was giving them what they wanted — removing the statue of Christopher Columbus from Grant Park — they began celebrating.
They hugged. They danced, singing their victory song, to the tune of “YMCA,” over their enemy, the Chicago Police Department:
“(Bleep) CPD! (Bleep) CPD!,” they shouted, dancing on video captured on Twitter and bounced across the world as police protected Lightfoot’s home.
The protesters were victorious. The Columbus statue on Chicago’s front lawn had been canceled.
Did Lightfoot cave?
I suppose you could say so. She wouldn’t be the first leader — in politics, business or media — eager to cave in to the demands of an angry uprising.
But there is also a practical life or death question here. Let’s just step back from the politics to consider it.
Can Chicago afford to commit more police — perhaps hundreds of cops — to protect a statue from the wrath of political mobs, when street violence on the South and West sides claims the lives of children?
I don’t think so.
Modern views of Columbus have changed, as evidence emerges of his treatment of Indigenous people and he’s been transformed into a symbol of white European oppression.
But many Americans of Italian descent in Chicago see Columbus as a symbol of pride. The great explorer was mythologized with statues and Columbus Day, in part because of the vicious treatment visited upon Italian immigrants. In 1892 President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day as a one-time holiday in response to 11 Italians who were lynched in New Orleans.
Statues of the great explorer were an affirmation that Italians — discriminated against for years — were also Americans. And now many Chicagoans of Italian descent are asking:
“What are we good for? Just our taxes?”
I suppose the honest answer, in this Chicago, is yes. Your tax dollars matter. But your history doesn’t matter.
Just a few days ago, in Grant Park, protesters trying to destroy the Columbus statue attacked cops defending it. Protesters dumped cases of frozen water bottles on the ground and these, along with rocks and fireworks, were thrown at police, according to videos compiled by Chicago police.
City Hall was unprepared. The city’s official count was 48 officers injured, and 18 police were hurt badly enough to require hospitalization.
Can Lightfoot afford to lose more cops to injury, or God forbid, death, to protect a statue, when police are understaffed in the street gang wars?
The protesters won’t protect those children. But cops will.
There are more than 100,000 active Chicago street gang members, and only about 12,000 police.
And out on the West and South sides, children are being slaughtered in street violence. The scream of a wounded child from the back of an ambulance would turn most of us to stone.
In Chicago, homicide and shooting incidents are out of control. The homicide clearance rate is abysmally low. The sense of lawlessness grows. Police Superintendent David Brown sees it all as gangs, drugs, guns and revenge.
Police are needed out in the streets, protecting the people.
Lightfoot’s first responsibility as mayor of Chicago is not to a statue, but to stop the violence.
“It’s a bad morning, a no-win situation,” 38th Ward Ald. Nick Sposato, an American of Italian descent, told me when I called him about the Columbus statues.
He supports the mayor in this. He doesn’t like it. He knows that other Italian American organizations are loudly opposed and angry. But he said he gave her his word when she asked.
“I’m in a tough spot but I gave my word,” Sposato said. “I didn’t want them taken down. She promised they’d be removed only temporarily. But if they stay up, you know there will be violence. I know the protesters are gloating, acting like they won a big victory. But I couldn’t live with myself if a police officer got killed, or anyone else.”
That’s where we are now in our politics.
The answer isn’t to grab a brick or a frozen water bottle and bash in the head of someone you disagree with. The answer is to vote.
The Lovely Sicilian who married me years ago supports Lightfoot too, and she agreed to move back to Chicago to live with me in a three-flat, in the city of my birth.
I promised her we’d rediscover our beautiful city. It would be a great adventure, like our “Year in Provence.”
I guess it didn’t turn out that way.
With the mayor canceling the Columbus statues in Chicago, even temporarily, my wife mentioned her father. He wasn’t a big shot. He drove a cab. He washed windows. After World War II, he looked for work in Colorado. But he couldn’t find a job, because, out there, Italians just weren’t American enough.
But he was American enough to receive the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in the invasion of Normandy. He was American enough when bullets were flying, when freedom was at stake.
After Colorado, he returned to Chicago to work and raise a family.
As a little boy he was a Sicilian orphan in New Orleans, born some 20 years after the 11 Italians had been lynched.
And I’m glad he’s not here, now, to see what’s become of his city, and his country.
Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at www.wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.
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