The sometimes comical, often infuriating and entirely unnecessary controversy surrounding the removal of the Columbus statue currently located at South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza has been framed in cultural and social justice terms. The instigators of the controversy – Mayor James Kenney and his coterie of progressive acolytes in City Hall and the greater community have employed the rhetoric of the “woke” in attempting to shame one ethnic group in order to placate and pacify a few others.
This is all without consulting the people who actually live in the shadow of the statue, which has towered benignly and peacefully over that square in the heart of Philadelphia’s Italian American community for more than 40 years. Kenney and his like-minded associates have decided that what they believe is good for the neighborhood is the only thing that matters. And they thought they had won, because on the battlefield of the Social Justice Warrior, social media and a sympathetic local press are powerful allies. So, too, I would argue, is the ability to pack the art and historical commissions who claim jurisdiction over the issue with political cronies.
When it became clear that the mayor was not going to be able to remove the statue in the same way that similar monuments had been dispatched, he then proceeded to have the statue boarded up, a petulant move to essentially hide the statue from the public.
But the rule of law is even more powerful, and when it is employed by a master in the art of litigation (and it is indeed one of society’s finest and most complicated arts), the amateur efforts of what I like to call “Cultural Grievance Squads” are no match. Fortunately for those of us who favor maintaining the Columbus statue in its rightful place of honor at Marconi Square, we have one such master in the person of George Bocchetto, Esquire. He is a Philadelphia legend who is uniquely qualified to meet the challenge in this post-George Floyd era, where every controversy is recast as a referendum on race and civic virtue.
It is not necessary to delve into the rather tortured history of how, in 2020, the statue of a man universally acclaimed as having opened the door to the New World has become a flashpoint for hatred. That has been covered by journalists, columnists, activists and moral relativists for the past few months. What hasn’t been examined is the flimsy basis upon which the crusade to remove the statue – a piece of public art that was gifted to the City of Philadelphia and its citizens by the Italian government – rests.
There has been a great deal of conversation and commentary about how the “indigenous” populations were brutalized by Christopher Columbus and his crew; about the fact that the Italian wayfarer was not the first to “discover” the New World; and about how Columbus was likely not even an “Italian,” since he was born in Genoa before the Republic of Italy even existed. I will leave those arguments to others who are much better equipped to address their veracity. Although my research indicates that there is much more rhetoric than reality entailed in the allegations of brutality, identity and the suggestion that Columbus did not discover the Americas.
But that’s beside the point. In this country, process matters. Even the lay person who hasn’t spent years in courtrooms and poring over legal treatises understands the concept of “due process.” The phrase is enshrined in the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and means that no person can be deprived of life, liberty or property without a full and fair hearing, with all legal protections applied. To say the least, that has not been happening with respect to the Columbus statue.
No one would argue that life, liberty or property, per se, are being endangered by Mayor Kenney’s fevered crusade to remove a statue that is beloved of the Italian American community in Philadelphia. Still, I think it’s clear that he is fighting to impose his will, and the will of a minority of Philadelphians on the rest of us. This has very little to do with the statue itself, and much more to do with the opportunism of some people who are profiting from the tragedy in Minnesota.
I do all of this because today it is statues being torn down by a meaningless mayor who has lost his way. Tomorrow, it could be a mean mayor who has pure evil on his/her agenda, and if we allow Kenney to get away with all of this, we have a very dangerous precedent.– George Bochetto, Esq.
More importantly, Kenney initially attempted to do an end run around the process by having the statue removed under the cover of darkness back in June, after concerned neighbors gathered around the statue to protect it. That group included a few outliers with baseball bats, but the vast majority of the protestors were peaceful. I know, because I spent hours among them over a four-day period. Unfortunately, the sympathetic local press insisted on calling the neighbors “vigilantes,” while counter-protestors who were spewing the bigoted and racist comments were painted in a much more positive light.
In response to the impending threat of removal, the neighbors realized that they needed to do what the mayor had not done: Go to court and follow the appropriate procedures to prevent what would have otherwise been an illegal civic theft. To do that, they enlisted the aid of Bocchetto, who is well known for his fierce spirit, deep knowledge of the law and history of taking on (and winning) difficult cases. Bocchetto filed an emergency petition with the Court of Common Pleas to enjoin the city from removing the statue until a hearing had been held on the propriety and legality of the move.
When it became clear that the mayor was not going to be able to remove the statue in the same way that similar monuments had been dispatched in cities like Wilmington, Boston, Baltimore and across the river in Camden, he then proceeded to have the statue boarded up, a petulant move to essentially hide the statue from the public. This was counter to an agreement that had been reached between the city solicitor’s office and Bocchetto, a violation that continues to this day.
I reached out to Bocchetto for comment on the controversy, and here is his entire response:
“We received an inside tip from a city official two months ago that the Kenney administration had hired a rigger to move the statue in the middle of the night. When I was informed—Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.– I knew Kenney was about to commit yet another illegal theft, and immediately prepared an injunction complaint, got the Emergency Judge of the Court of Common Pleas on the line, and had an injunction by 10 p.m.
“But for that injunction, the statue would be gone (and likely destroyed, as it is made of marble, is known to be fragile and distressed, and is 160 years old). In ongoing proceedings, Judge Paula Patrick has insisted the mayor follow the law in any removal proceedings, which the mayor has refused to do, instead hastily convening the Kangaroo Art Commission to hold a ‘special meeting’ to vote to rip it down (the historic commission did likewise.)
“I then filed yet another injunction request to stay the Kangaroo decision, and Judge Patrick granted it. Now, we are going to engage in some discovery, where I am going to rip open some ugly sores, and show in court the complete contempt Kenney has for his own constituents.
“I do all of this because today it is statues being torn down by a meaningless mayor who has lost his way. Tomorrow, it could be a mean mayor who has pure evil on his/her agenda, and if we allow Kenney to get away with all of this, we have a very dangerous precedent. Tomorrow, the attack could be on the LGBT community, or the Jewish culture, or anything else a lawless mob might begin to hate.
“If the Columbus statue(s) are to go, then let’s do it as a civilized society, where everyone has meaningful input. (This, by the way, is the specific injunction and intent set forth in the Home Rule Charter.) I can live with –and indeed support — an awakening to past sins by our forefathers (though I have reviewed the scholarly works on Columbus, and there is a great deal of misinformation being peddled by the popular media) and a set of reforms to undo the effects of racism, slavery, and imperialism, but I cannot stand by and do nothing when a lawless mob purports to so on whatever whim they choose to exploit.
“As they say, if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.”
From a personal standpoint as a lawyer, I am inspired by the efforts of George Bocchetto. He has been able to harness the anger and profound hurt experienced by the Italian community in this city and channel it into a positive and highly effective display of how the legal system is the only thing standing between us and mob rule. Despite the fact that there have been hearings before the arts and historical commissions, their determinations were preordained.
I participated in both hearings, and knew from the comments and condescending manner of the commissioners that they were there as figureheads for an administration that takes its orders from a small, “woke” demographic.
The statue is still there, as of this writing. Let us hope that it will remain in place, until and unless a judge determines that the law – and not a political mob – sanctions its removal.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61