The anti-Columbus playbook is unraveling

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Basil M. Russo, president of The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, addressed a large crowd at a press conference and rally at Columbus Circle in Manhattan in May. Russo’s emotional speech detailing the history of prejudice, bigotry and violence inflicted on Italian immigrants was frequently interrupted with applause and shouts of support from the crowd.

The tide is turning in New York and across the country as Italian Americans mobilize to counter a jaded political formula.

The strategy was straightforward: To score political points, all one needed to do was remove a Columbus statue, look the other way when one was illegally toppled or simply rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.

The formula worked for years, the blowback was containable and many media outlets, sympathetic to the anti-Columbus movement, didn’t kick up much of a fuss.

But quite a bit has changed over the past 12 months, as Italian-American organizations have continued to mobilize and fight back — not with rocks or spray paint — but, rather, with sweeping lawsuits and waves of condemnation, petitions and protest.

Apparently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Department of Education Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter weren’t aware that the anti-Columbus playbook now carries with it significant political risk.

Consumed by an unexpected PR crisis, de Blasio said he and Porter were blindsided last month when Columbus Day was changed to Indigenous Peoples Day on the NYC school calendar.

In a rather unbelievable move, the mayor blamed the former chancellor, Richard Carranza, for the name change and declared that Italian American Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples Day would be celebrated on Oct. 11 with a day off from school.

However, that half-baked solution has only enraged an Italian-American community that watched in awe over the past year as our history and heritage were stripped away by rioters and grandstanding politicians.

In response, Italian-American leaders held a press conference and civil rights rally at New York’s Columbus Circle in May to voice their outrage and opposition to the decision.

Congressman Tom Suozzi of New York, a Democrat from Long Island, was the first of several public officials to come to the defense of the Italian-American community by calling upon the mayor to rescind the name change.

Now, State Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, outraged by de Blasio’s botched name change, has introduced a bill that would restore the explorer’s name to the New York City school calendar.

Meanwhile, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations is spearheading a federal lawsuit in Philadelphia to reverse Mayor James Kenney’s executive order that changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in the city this past January.

The lawsuit seeks to designate the Italian-American community as a protected class under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. If that happens, the precedent would make it much harder for elected officials to eliminate Columbus Day and remove monuments in his honor.

The Italian Sons and Daughters of America sued the city of Pittsburgh and Mayor Bill Peduto after Peduto approved the removal of the city’s 50-foot Columbus monument.

Anti-Columbus legislation was recently shot down in the Maryland state senate, and statues were saved in two Connecticut cities, as local leaders and voters pushed back against protestors.

The list goes on, and Italian-America’s voice grows louder by the day to end the undemocratic discrimination of our heritage.

The time-honored Columbus Day celebrations were launched in the late 1800s as Italian immigrants attempted to create a sense of self-esteem and dignity during a period when they were subjected to lynchings, bigotry and prejudice throughout the country.

Columbus’s journey sparked 500 years of immigration to America, attracting peoples from throughout the world who were seeking a better life for their families. This is the spirit we champion and are fighting to preserve, and this is what the Columbus statues stand for.

The Italian-American community has always supported the designation of an Indigenous Peoples Day, as it is most rightly and most justly deserved. But pitting one group against another only creates confrontation and division. We need to strive for inclusiveness and diversity by treating all groups with fairness and respect.

Basil M. Russo is president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations.

The above appears in the July 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Basil Russo

Hon. Basil M. Russo is the national president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America and the president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, having previously served on the Executive Committee of the National Italian American Foundation. Russo was the managing partner of Russo, Rosalina law firm until his retirement in 2015. He has served as judge of the Ohio Court of Appeals; judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, for which he received the Excellent Judicial Service Award from the Ohio Supreme Court; and majority leader of Cleveland City Council.

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