Italian American group sues Chicago over removal of Columbus statue

An Italian American group is filing a lawsuit over the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue in Chicago.

“We are three days shy of the one-year anniversary of when the statues came down. We’ve been trying to be communicative, we’ve been trying to be respectful to the city and the park district. However, their lack of response has caused an unavoidable action of this litigation,” said Ron Onesti, President of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA) to the Independent Chronicle.

“And we are not going away anytime soon. This is something near and dear to the hearts of our Italian-American community. But what started as an Italian-American thing has blossomed into something that is affecting all ethnic groups…What happened to our Italian-American community today can happen to any other group tomorrow,” Onesti added.

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The group claims the removal of the Columbus monument violates a nearly 50-year-old agreement between them and the Park District that says it must obtain written consent from the group “before making any substantial change to Columbus Plaza or Columbus Statue.”

“It is believed that Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the removal of the three Columbus Statues claiming it as a safety measure during protests and civil unrest. It was to be ‘temporary,’ and the JCCIA’s position is that a year is long enough,” the group said in a press release Wednesday.

“We worked out a contract in 1973 with the Chicago Park District after the statue and plaza was built,” Ron Onesti, president of the organization, told local media. “The contract agreement basically says any alterations of the statue or plaza must have the written consent of the Columbus Statue Committee.”

“Removing the statue last year is a clear breach of our contract with the Park District,” Onesti added.

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The lawsuit lists the Park District, several of its executives, and various members of the Board of Commissioners as defendants. The city of Chicago and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are listed as “respondents in discovery” and not as defendants.

Enrico Mirabelli, lead attorney in the lawsuit, said they tried to avoid taking the Park District to court but their contract states any legal grievances must be raised within one year. In April, to avoid going to court, the group sent a letter and the contract to the Park District Board of Commissioners.

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“We never received a reply,” Mirabelli said. “We remain committed to finding a reasonable solution. But no governing body and no individual is above the law. When you make a contract you are expected to follow the terms of the agreement.”

During last summer’s Black Lives Matter riots in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the Columbus statue was the center of violent clashes between protesters. Protesters demanded the statue be removed because of the atrocities Columbus committed against the indigenous people in the Americas.

The clashes over the statue often turned violent, as counter-protesters opposed efforts to remove the statue, labeling it an attempt to erase Italian-American culture. The statue was the target of graffiti and was often hit with balloons filled with paint.

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The statue was removed on July 24, 2020, at 3 a.m. and put into city storage while officials decided where to display it, if at all.

“Pulling the monument down at 3 a.m. without any interaction with our community was not the way to go about this,” Onesti said. “I couldn’t see this happening to any other ethnic group in the city. That would be like ending the St. Patrick’s Day parade without warning or explanation. No other ethnic group would allow something like this to happen.”

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Mayor Lightfoot announced earlier this year that more than three dozen monuments, memorials, and public art pieces would be assessed for possible removal throughout the entire city over fears that they may be offensive to some. The city formed a monuments and memorials advisory committee to assess each one individually.

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