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A crowd of hundreds participated today, October 14, in an Anti-Columbus Day Tour organized by the activist group Decolonize This Place (DTP) together with a coalition of prison abolition, anti-gentrification, and demilitarization groups. More than 700 protestors (DTP estimates over 1,000 participants) marched from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), through streets and sites in Central Park, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The activists reiterated their demands from previous years: “Rename the day, remove the statue, and respect ancestors.”
The protesters gathered in front of the disputed Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of AMNH at 3pm and were met with a noticeable police presence (15 NYPD cars were present at the scene). Activist Kerbie Joseph, a coordinator for the Audrey Lorde Project and member of No New Jails NYC, acted as the tour’s MC. Joseph started the event with acknowledgment of the Lenape land on which the museum stands and led the crowd into a series of chants including “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “They want the art but not the people.”
Joseph was followed by two Indigenous speakers, scholar Sandy Grande and Regan de Loggans from the Indigenous Kinship Collective.”We must remember the centrality of the liberation of land in the liberation of our people,” Grande said. “If you’re a settler, it’s time for you to go,” de Loggans followed before performing a soulful song with her associates dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people.
This event marks DTP’s fourth Anti-Columbus Day Tour. The tour is held annually on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, federally recognized as Columbus Day. Typically, the activist storm the galleries of the museum, holding performances, reciting chants, and holding teach-ins at different anthropological exhibits that highlight the history of colonialism in the institution’s displays. This year, the protesters took to the streets of New York City to amplify their core issues of Indigenous rights, mass incarceration, gentrification, and international struggles in Kashmir, Palestine, and the Philippines.
At the heart of the annual protest is the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, which was unveiled outside of AMNH in 1940 as part of a memorial to the former New York governor and United States president. The sculpture, made by James Earle Fraser, features the president on a horse, flanked by two gun carriers: an Indigenous man to his right, and a Black man to his left. The statue was meant to “celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,” AMNH says on its website. The former president’s father was one of the museum’s founders, the institution adds, and says it is “proud of its historic association with the Roosevelt family.”
“The statue has long been controversial, and we welcome the opportunity to address it,” AMNH said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic this morning. The museum continued:
In 2017, it was identified as one of four monuments on City-owned property that would be reviewed by a newly established Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers. In 2018, after completion of the Commission’s deliberations, the Mayor’s Office announced that the statue would remain, but with additional interpretation, which we have now provided in the form of external signage and an exhibition, Addressing the Statue, inside the Museum, which includes among other elements, a thorough video that is also available online.
Activists have been calling for the removal of the statue for years. In October of 2016, DTP organized the first Anti-Columbus Day tour inside the museum with the participation of other social justice movements. In October 2017, activists from the group Monument Removal Brigade (MRB) escalated the campaign against the monument when they splashed the sculpture’s base with blood-red paint. In an interview with Hyperallergic, the group described the action as a “counter-monumental gesture that does symbolic damage to the values [the statue] represents: genocide, dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and state terror.”
Inside the museum, a new exhibition entitled Addressing the Statue was recently opened to address the controversial monument. As part of the exhibition, a new informational plaque was added to the bronze. The plaque reads: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.” The plaque was added following the recommendations of the New York City Monuments Commission in 2018.
“The museum remains silent about calls for the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, which has been enacted by dozens of states and cities around the country,” a poster distributed during the tour reads. “The museum is annotating some of its displays, but it uses these as token gestures to insulate itself from calls to overhaul the framework of the museum as a whole.”
This year, the tour’s organizers were joined by No New Jails NY, Chinatown Art Brigade, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, and Art Space Sanctuary, among many others. During the protest, Joseph introduced the massive crowd to a group of volunteer medics, and members of the National Lawyers Guild, with the message: “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.” She encouraged the audience with a positive message: “We’re gonna be a family today, because this system is so cold that it wants us to be divided.”
Led by a band of drummers, the protestors marched from the museum down to West 85th Street to enter Central Park, filling the air with sage smoke as they walked. A heavy police presence followed the protesters to each location. Their first stop was Seneca Village, the site of a historically Black community that was displaced in 1857 in the city’s first large-scale enactment of imminent domain. Speakers from the group No New Jails drew connections between the site’s history and their struggle to abolish the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. “Prisons and jails are offsprings of slave plantations,” a representative of the group said. “No one has the right to build a single jail on Lenape land.”
The marchers then continued to the park’s crowded Great Lawn, where anti-gentrification activists from the Bronx and Harlem spoke against rezoning and land-use practices against the backdrop of upper Manhattan’s skyline. Artist and activist Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx spoke against the city’s “methodical execution of displacement,” and called for a series of community-forward steps including a moratorium on all evections and the implementation of universal rent control.
The next stop was in front of Cleopatra’s Needle, an 1185 BCE obelisk, one of only three in the world. “That fact that [this obelisk] is over here should be unacceptable,” said Amin Husain, an organizer with DTP. Husain was followed by speakers from the Palestinian youth group Within Our Lifetime, who expressed their solidarity with the prison abolition movement and the struggles of Indigenous people in the US.
In a surprise move, the tour’s organizers announced the Metropolitan Museum as their final stop. While occupying the museum’s steps, the protestors carried speeches and listened to a band of Indigenous Ecuadorian children perform traditional tunes as an “act of love and solidarity to all the children who are detained at the border.”
An activist from Take Back the Bronx acknowledged the Metropolitan Museum’s recent commission, which filled its facades with sculptures by artist Wangechi Mutu, declaring: “These institutions have the audacity to fund Black and Brown artists, Indigenous artists, while simultaneously showcasing the stolen and bloodstained cultures of our ancestors.” The Met has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
“We are not occupying this space, we are supposed to be here,” said Joseph in closing. “Columbus day is a sham,” she continued, “the only day we celebrate is Indigenous People’s Day.” The protesters ended their tour with teach-in groups on gentrification, Palestine, and prison abolition, and a shared meal.