About 25 protesters came face to face Monday with residents who raised funds for a Christopher Columbus monument after statues in other communities in Connecticut were vandalized over the weekend.
Protesters, some with signs reading “Stop honoring genocide,” “Columbus was a rapist” and “Southington Says Teach The Truth,” stood silently inside the town council chambers among 100 ceremony attendees there to dedicate the statue outside the John Weichsel Municipal Center.
The morning dedication echoed the national controversy about Columbus.
The marble monument was created and installed with funds raised by private civic groups. “What I saw here today was a community split on an issue and coming together to voice different opinions peacefully,” Melvin Medina of Hartford, a volunteer observer for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said.
The 90-minute ceremony was civil. Nine town police officers were on hand. Tom DelSanto, a Vietnam War veteran, yelled briefly at a protester whose sign pole had the American flag flying upside down. Police quickly stepped in and escorted DelSanto away from the protester who continued to hold the sign.
A police officer later walked that protester to his car on Mill Street to make sure there was no further confrontation.
Dorie Colon Perugini, one of the protest organizers, said the group’s hope is to place a plaque near the monument to “correct inaccuracies” about Columbus. She and others stressed the importance of peaceful, silent protest and the group’s desire to continue talking with town officials. There is no demand that the monument be removed, she said.
During the ceremony, project sponsors and local officials said it is proper to acknowledge Columbus’ role in the New World. Almost all noted the negative impact European emigration had on Native Americans.
Still, the nationwide controversy surrounding statues of Confederate generals, Columbus and other historical figures is wrong, speakers said. “Christopher Columbus was a man of his time,” said Antonio Cusano, representing Unico and the Sons of Italy, two of five civic groups that raised money for the monument.
America is a democracy where people have the right to differing opinions, he said.
Police in two other Connecticut cities have stepped up security after two Christopher Columbus statues were vandalized with red paint over the weekend.
Sometime Saturday night, the statue of Columbus and its base, plaques and a concrete sitting wall at Harbor Park in Middletown were defaced with red paint.
By Monday morning, though, the messages were illegible and the statue had only a slight red hue from the vandalism.
Police Lt. Heather Desmond said the vandalism was reported Sunday and cleaned later in the day. She said it appears someone dumped a can of red paint over the statue's head.
Desmond said she could not release the text of the message because it is part of the investigation.
Middletown Public Works Director William Russo said he was reviewing video footage from park surveillance cameras to determine if they captured any evidence.
The Columbus statue was built in 1996 in the southernmost section of Harbor Park, which is also known as Columbus point. Plaques from the monument's dedication list dozens of noted leaders from Middletown's storied Italian community.
The monument to Cristoforo Colombo — “Discoverer of America” — was built by the Columbus Quincentenniel Committee of Middletown and was dedicated "In honor of all Italian-Americans whose achievements have enriched the social, cultural and civic vitality if this city, region and state," according to its inscription.
Police remained at the Columbus statue in New Haven’s Wooster Square Monday after it was vandalized Saturday.
At the Southington dedication, state Sen. Joseph Markley, the keynote speaker, said people are “gathered here today in celebration or protest” about Columbus, who lived more than 500 years ago in a different time “impossible for us today to understand.” He asked listeners not to “crucify” Columbus but honor his accomplishment of finding a passage from Europe to the New World.
Columbus has a mixed legacy, council chair Michael Riccio said, His discovery in 1492 of the New World is part of a more complex history than what has been taught in public schools, he said, Having a Columbus monument is OK, he said. It should be a catalyst for open discussion about historical events, their long-range impact on people and “more complete” teaching in local school about the Age of Discovery.
“Imagine if in 500 years we are viewed by our descendants as culturally incompetent because we insist on judging our predecessors by our standards and our culture,” he said. “In my opinion we should make every effort to learn the complete history and learn from history so that we don’t repeat mistakes. So the question really is not about Columbus and his legacy but rather about our own legacy. Are we making the same mistakes he is accused of? Do we exploit other cultures for our own benefit? What are we doing to support the right of indigenous and oppressed people today?”