CAMDEN, NJ — After a 40-plus year battle to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from Camden’s Farnham Park, the monument to the Italian explorer lay headless in the grass Thursday night.
Some residents despite maligning the “symbol of hate,” took the manner it was removed as a slight.
Earlier this month, Rev. Levi Combs III, pastor of the First Refuge Progressive Baptist Church, began to organize a protest — in which he and at least 300 other black men will look to decry the statue.
Despite assurances made to Combs by county freeholders that the statue would be removed after the march planned for this Saturday, city workers arrived at the Parkside square with a crane and various trucks Thursday.
A decision by the city that “undermined” his efforts, Combs said.
“They’re undercutting not just me, they’re undercutting the residents because this isn’t a new fight,” Combs said.
Ronsha Dickerson, an activist in the city, began to Facebook live stream the trucks attempting to remove the statue. Combs climbed aboard the base of the monument with a megaphone in tow calling on community members who were watching to congregate at the park.
After more than 50 people trickled in, Combs was joined by others in removing the statue from the truck and ultimately decapitating it with a sledgehammer.
“That's going to come out of here on the people's terms, not on the city's terms,” he said pointing to the statue. “When we were calling for it to be removed 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, it still remained there. When it was defaced on the night of Martin Luther King Day, and I was on Fox 29 news talking about it, they removed all the expletives but there it remained.”
The removal of Christopher Columbus and other such figures from public spaces comes at a fervent time for the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide — a catalyst of which has been the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police officers.
City spokesman Vincent Basara, said he was not aware of any discussion Combs had with officials over a timeline.
“Historically there’s been a lot of contention over that statue, and with the national movement going on we felt the timing was right to remove it now,” said Basara over the phone.
Camden council members and Mayor Frank Moran said in a statement in conjunction with the statue’s removal that the city is “eager to continue our open dialogue” with clergy, residents, police, elected officials, and community leaders to do away with racial bias.
The joint statement also acknowledged that the statue, “has long been a controversial symbol.”
“[The statue’s] presence has long pained the residents of the community,” reads an excerpt. “Previously, there have been requests to remove the statue as the community no longer supports the monument. It is long overdue, but we must now establish a plan to reexamine these outdated symbols of racial division and injustices.”
In a video Friday morning, Moran said he is looking forward to working with community leaders in Parkside to coordinate over what will replace the statue.
Dickerson asked, “Why can’t we get a statue of Marcus Garvey or a Martin Luther King or Ella Baker, someone who has done great things for black people in our community? We all know the history that's false about Christopher Columbus...so why do we have to be reminded of that?”
Sheilah Greene, community outreach specialist for Parkside Business & Community in Partnership (PBCIP) said The Cooper House and Woodrow Wilson High School are other examples of symbols that should no longer exist in the city.
As dusk began to settle on the park, Combs asked for volunteers to take shifts guarding the headless statue — adamant that it remain there until Saturday.
“This is not going to stop us. It just gives us more fuel for the fire,” Combs said, noting that protestors are on their way from New York, Washington, DC, Delaware and Philadelphia for the weekend’s march. “It goes beyond George Floyd, because George Floyd just gave America one depiction of what African Americans have been going through for 400 years.”
The first to sign up for the sit-in was Aileen Wilcox, a Camden resident all her life.
“I found today to be bittersweet,” said Wilcox, who planned to be at the park until midnight. “Because I believe that what is going on is an injustice. Anytime you agree with the people to honor what they want, and then you change that, that's an injustice.”
Multiple police cruisers stood by as volunteers made arrangements. Two officers then worked on cordoning off the statue with yellow caution tape.
“We're here to support the community and will be here to make sure that they’re safe,” said Camden Police Captain Zsakhiem James.
James said that the tape was put up to protect residents from the jagged statue pieces and heavier slabs: “We want to make sure people are aware of the potential hazard that’s there.”