Scott Woods: Bringing Back the Christopher Columbus Statue is an Offense
It’s a sign that Columbus leaders have little interest in taking racism seriously.
Here’s the way things work here: When the city wants to do something—build a new arena or hand out tax abatements like candy—it’s going to find a way to do it. It may not do it at that moment, but it doesn’t like losing. The people who run Columbus will go a long way not to lose.
What sometimes hides that truth is that occasionally people who don’t run the city, aka citizens, place a speed bump in front of a plan. Columbus is still small enough that public-facing shame is still a viable tactic. Make enough noise or get the city noticed by national media in a way that makes city leaders look nefarious and you might stall something out.
This is what happened with the Christopher Columbus statues that used to stand in front of City Hall and Columbus State Community College. During the protests of 2020, fueled by the worldwide outcry over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a city already reeling from pandemic shutdowns felt pressure to not be seen as the problem. Some cities don’t care about that perception because they’re too big to fail politically. No matter how politically corrupt New York may be, nobody’s refunding their Hamilton tickets.
Columbus police clearly don’t care how they’re perceived, but then, they’re armed, and that’s kind of a big deal to them. More concerned are people who are (more or less) installed by the public into office, like City Council and the mayor. They’re a little more sensitive to being seen as the face of systemic racism and cultural appropriation, and so the statues had to go. Mind you, this wasn’t on the list of any Black people I know—we were protesting police abuse—but we weren’t exactly upset about it either. Removing statues is an easy layup if you’re looking to score political points, especially while your predominant business district is boarded up like a Lincoln Logs playset.
The thing about such concessions is that they’re almost never permanent. When communal anger subsides and public sentiment is focused elsewhere, things that were once out of fashion for a season find their way back onto runways. Again, Columbus doesn’t like to lose, and being told what to do by a bunch of people blocking street corners is offensive to those with political and economic skin in the game.
So imagine my lack of surprise when, on Monday of this week, Columbus City Council tabled a contract that would facilitate the reinstallation of the City Hall Columbus statue.
Mind you, no one should be surprised by this. The statue was mothballed, not destroyed. It’s been sitting in storage the last two years waiting for a budget and facilitator plan to get approved by City Council to place it somewhere else. (In this instance, $253,000 to Designing Local, a Columbus art-focused urban planning firm.) The city was looking for bids for companies that might reframe the statue’s history for display back in January. As long as the statue is in hand, there will be attempts to bring it back. Where is apparently up for debate, but I wouldn’t see this delay as any kind of victory. It’s just more patient finger-tapping by the city. Trust me, they have bigger fish to gentrify.
The part that offends me is that bringing it back flies in the face of the very real and persistent reasons why it was supposedly a problem in the first place. Mayor Andrew Ginther stood in front of many cameras and spoke about oppression and patriarchy, and how, as a city, “we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past.” To be clear, I don’t put much stock in such statements. There are too many other oppressive, patriarchal, shadowy and ugly things happening in Columbus right now for me to take him seriously over patting himself on the back over a statue. But bringing the statue back is a clear signal that the city has little interest in taking any of those problems seriously.
If you’re going to be merely symbolic, at least try to be consistent about the “symbolic” part and not the “merely” part.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.