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San Francisco Removes Controversial Christopher Columbus Statue on Telegraph Hill

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City workers removed a Christopher Columbus statue on Telegraph Hill Thursday, June 18.  (Courtesy of SFGov)

Acting quickly and quietly, city workers early Thursday morning removed a controversial Christopher Columbus from its perch atop San Francisco's Telegraph Hill.

The move was ordered with little notice by Mayor London Breed, just a day before protesters had reportedly planned to topple the 12-foot bronze statue of the 15th century explorer and throw it off Pier 31 into the bay. The statue, which stood adjacent to Coit Tower, had already been defaced multiple times recently.

“It was removed because it doesn’t align with San Francisco’s values or our commitment to racial justice. Doing it quickly was also a matter of public safety,” said Rachelle Axel, Director of Public & Private Partnerships for the San Francisco Arts Commission, which oversees the city's sculptures. “The statue was vandalized three times last week and similar statues across the country have been brought down by citizens during protests.”

Axel said the city's quick response was an effort to preempt Friday's potential protest action.

“A 2-ton statue falling from its pedestal presented a grave risk to citizens,” Axel said in an email. “The statue has been safely placed in storage. We look forward to engaging the community in a meaningful conversation around next steps for the statue, and for the site.”

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The statue's removal has long been sought by activists who say it symbolizes white supremacy in its commemoration of a historical figure who ushered in an era of genocide to North America's indigenous peoples. But those efforts have gained fierce momentum in the last three weeks amid nationwide protests over racial injustice spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Kanyon Coyotewoman Sayers-Roods is a Mutsun Ohlone California Native Two-Spirit activist. They said this was a happy day for indigenous people.

"I understand some people are getting upset for claiming this may be an agenda for a revisionist narrative," they said. "For me, the statues being erected was a revisionist narrative."

Sayers-Roods added, of Columbus, "He didn't discover anything, he's being celebrated for a mistake" and for "the first wave of genocide against indigenous people."

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The statue once stood at Coit Tower, which is operated by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

“Coit Tower is an emblem of the San Francisco skyline, beloved by visitors for its panoramic views. Racism has no place in that view, or in ours,” Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Park Department, said in a statement.

The removal of the statue comes just days after California legislative leaders announced their decision to remove a Columbus statue that has been the centerpiece of the state Capitol rotunda since 1883, “given the deadly impact his arrival in this hemisphere had on indigenous populations.”

"At a time of great unrest and deep reflection both locally and nationally, we recognize that Christopher Columbus is a deeply polarizing figure in our history, and a symbol of pain and oppression to many, including and especially to indigenous people," said Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

That marks a stark turnaround for Peskin, who represents the North Beach and Telegraph Hill neighborhoods, home to a large Italian-American community, and who has long defended the statue as an important marker of the community's heritage. Last year, when activists doused the sculpture in red paint and graffiti just before the federal Columbus Day holiday, Peskin told the Chronicle the act was “a hateful, despicable piece of divisive vandalism.”

The statue of Columbus — who was born in Genoa, Italy — was erected in 1957 to celebrate the city's Italian-American community, which have opposed previous efforts to remove it.

So what statue, if any, should stand atop Telegraph Hill at the foot of Coit Tower?

Sayers-Roods, the Ohlone activist, said they would be glad to see a statue of an Italian historical figure who made positive strides, but that any future decision should be collaborative.

"I would be for the city, the community, and the first people, the Raymatush Ohlone people, being involved in the conversation going forward," they said. "It seems as though the news wants to pit indigenous people against Italian Americans. No, we just don't want to celebrate Columbus. I would joyously celebrate Italian American history for valid reasons."

San Francisco, along with a number of other U.S. cities, have also voted in recent years to eliminate Columbus Day from their calendars and replace it with a day honoring indigenous people.

Statues of controversial figures have been coming down across the country as government officials rethink the impact and symbolism they have. In Kentucky, officials removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, from the state Capitol. And in Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, Gov. Ralph Northam has announced plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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