GLEN ROCK, NJ – The Borough Council unanimously decided to keep Columbus Day on the 2020 borough calendar after more than 100 Italian Americans and supporters attended the council meeting, some speaking of Italian contributions to society, both nationally and locally.
Last night's standing-room-only crowd, many from out of town, were adamant in their message: do not take Columbus Day off the borough calendar.
One resident, Becca Coll, spoke in opposition to keeping the holiday on the calendar. She said she was one of the people who did not want Christopher Columbus's name attached to an Italian heritage holiday. In one day, a petition she posted online which agreed with her stance gained 92 signatures opposed to keeping the day on the calendar and suggested naming it Indigenous People's Day.
"This is a man who did terrible things to human beings," Coll said of Columbus. "I had to close down the petition because of the vitriol. My child told me there were posts calling me insane, pathetic, snow flake. Some think I am being paid to advance issues. There were rude comments painting me as a radical."
Coll said it's not such a radical idea as 100 towns have already changed the name of the day, along with seven states.
"Italian heritage should not continue to celebrate this man," she said, describing several atrocities she believes Columbus perpetrated against women.
"Disagreements do not have to devolve into divisiveness," Coll said.
Mayor Bruce Packer and each council member offered their thoughts on the issue prior to voting unanimously to keep it on the calendar.
Councilman Mike O'Hagan, who was not in attendance at the last council work session due to work commitments, pushed for the council to take a vote before going into the regular meeting at 8 p.m. Councilman Bill Leonard, made the motion to keep the holiday as is on the calendar but continue the discussion about a possible Indigenous People's Day on a separate day.
Mayor Packer released the following statement this morning: “We listened to the various viewpoints of our residents and decided that no change would be made to the 2020 Borough Calendar. We are thankful to all the residents who attended our meetings and who reached out with their thoughtful points of view. We move on with a much better respect and understanding of all sides of the issue, including the significance of this holiday to our Italian-American residents and neighbors that often goes well beyond the man that it is named for.”
During the meeting, Packer said he regretted letting his personal feelings known, which was to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day. He does not vote on issues unless there is a tie. He explained a couple of times during the meeting his only motivation on this or any topic is to bring it to the council's attention for discussion.
Councilwoman Mary Barchetto, who did not change her opinion from the last work session, went next. "We're here to represent you no matter how small or how large the issue," she said. "We're your elected officials and we're willing to listen to you. We have your best interests at heart."
Councilwoman Arati Kreibich, who was previously in favor of changing the calendar, said she appreciated that people were there from "near and far."
"Whether we agree with you or not, it's all important," she said. "We take you seriously. Our intention is to listen to you and solve problems. Our intention is to be more inclusive and not to exclude."
Council President Kristine Morieko, who was opposed to changing the calendar from the start, said she felt the council lacked jurisdiction on the matter, but when the press and social media posts became involved, it became a bigger issue. "We do listen to you," she said. "But there is no need to pit neighbor against neighbor."
Councilwoman Amy Martin, who was previously in favor of the change, said part of the council's job is not to back down from discussing controversial issues. "I am Italian, from Sicily," she said. "There's always room for more. I care about inclusion. I think this mayor has been exceptional on inclusion."
Regarding decisions, such as this one, Martin said the public sometimes gets the perception the council is "ramrodding" them through. "While there's sometimes pressure to make decisions fast," she assured the audience they make decisions thoughtfully.
Councilman O'Hagan apologized for not being able to attend the last work session but was clear on his position. "I'm not in favor of this in any way shape or form. I respect other's opinions. Believe me, I've been taken to the woodshed many times on issues. I do feel so passionate about this. I would like a formal vote tonight."
Councilman Bill Leonard said he wanted to "go on the record" as not supporting changing the day on the calendar, consisten with his opinion at the last work session. "I am an Italian American, in spite of my light skin and red hair," he said, getting a chuckle out of the crowd.
Andre’ DiMino, a member of the Board of Directors for the Italian American One Voice Coalition, was the first public speaker and explained part of his group’s mission as addressing propaganda about Italian culture and, along those lines, the history of Columbus. He cited Rafael Ortiz’s book, “Christopher Columbus, The Hero: Defending Columbus from Modern Day Revisionism.” DiMino brought a personal letter from Ortiz addressed to the council urging them to keep the day on the calendar.
DiMino was a guest on the 970AM Joe Piscopo morning radio show a couple of weeks ago discussing the Glen Rock calendar issue. Piscopo, an unabashed proud Italian, urged Glen Rock not to take action on changing the holiday, as well.
During the meeting, Mayor Packer invited Piscopo to Glen Rock to show him around.
Ron D’Argenio, a resident for 66 years, said when his father came home from WWII, he was discriminated over a zoning issue because the board at the time could not understand what he was saying through his accent.
“Whatever you agree on, don’t make it a hyphenated holiday,” he said, characterizing the attempt to change the calendar as an “attack on Western civilization.”
“This is hindsight history,” D’Argenio said. “It’s a condescending game to play political tricks on the dead who are not here to defend themselves.”
Another man who called himself an Irish American, said he was there to support Italians. “I’m so sick and tired of this culture always being attacked.”
Yet another resident likened the attempt to change the calendar as Stalin- and Alinsky-esk by “isolating, demonizing and destroying.”
Several more individuals spoke their peace, as well, defending Italians and Columbus, agreeing the historical figure was misunderstood and not a “genocidal maniac” as he has recently been accused.
While there was some confusion about revisiting the matter in the future, it has most assuredly been put to rest by the council’s vote for 2020.