Yesterday at Staten Island Borough Hall, more than 40 people testified at the last of five public hearings of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, which will soon advise Mayor Bill de Blasio on how to handle existing monuments and statues of controversial historical figures in New York City.
While testimony at the hearing in Manhattan last week focused largely on the statue of 19th-century gynecologist J. Marion Sims in Central Park — with the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle and the equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History following closely behind — on Staten Island, the discussion focused nearly exclusively on Columbus. Most speakers argued that the statue should be left as is; several noted that it would be helpful to include explanatory plaques; and only a couple of people called for the statue to be removed outright.
Like at the Manhattan hearing, a number of Italian Americans testified yesterday to the importance of Columbus as a symbol in their community, but many Staten Islanders got a lot more emotional. Speakers told personal stories of the plights of their immigrant grandparents. One person stated: “Removing Columbus would be as obscene as removing the Statue of Liberty.”
Many attendees at yesterday’s hearing argued that taking down statues amounts to erasing history, that we are too harshly judging people who lived hundreds of years ago by today’s ethical standards, and that the erecting of the statues themselves — Columbus in particular, which was funded by local Italian Americans — was an important historical event. Toward the end of the hearing, a woman who travelled from the Bronx to testify said that she supports statues staying up not because of their history, but because they are works of art.
Among the people who spoke at the hearing, at least a dozen were Staten Island high school students. Social studies and civics teachers from Curtis High School, the College of Staten Island High School for International Studies, and Ralph R. McKee Career and Technical High School brought their classes to the hearing, encouraging students to testify. (Commission co-chair Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, twice applauded them for coming.) Among the high school students who testified, most concurred that the statues should stay up, notwithstanding their own personal ethnicities and backgrounds. Several students pointed out that, regardless of their opinions on the fate of the statues, Staten Island (and New York at large) has more pressing issues to deal with, particularly the problems of housing and homelessness. Many adults who testified later greed with the students.
Although most people appeared to either dismiss the importance of the issue at hand or to staunchly defend Columbus and the status quo, opposing voices were also heard. One person, who said he’d already testified three times at previous hearings, stood up and addressed “the people of Staten Island,” beseeching them to widen their lens of thinking. “There are objective truths about genocide,” he said, questioning how they could defend Columbus, a man who “gave” his shipmates young indigenous women to rape. “False narratives are a cancer,” he concluded. Others suggested that if there were more Native Americans in New York — if people like Columbus and the colonists who followed in his wake hadn’t wiped them out — the Columbus statue would certainly come down, and this wouldn’t be an issue.
One man testified that this is a “watershed moment for the whole nation. It’s about truth and falsehood. For so long, we’ve been miseducated about our past. The status quo makes me nervous, because we don’t know how to apologize for that miseducation.”
It was only toward the end of the hearing that a few people mentioned J. Marion Sims. Pearl Barkely, a resident of East Harlem, testified that the debates around Sims and Columbus prove that “we have a lot of work to do,” and that we as a society need to stop letting the “ends justify the means.”
Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem cited the importance of truth and reconciliation, and that the US should learn from the examples of South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany. He added: “Society cannot be healed through denial.”