HACKENSACK, N.J. — Following George Floyd’s Memorial Day slaying at the hands of Minneapolis police resulting from another merciless act of police brutality among the black community came the onslaught of outrage from protesters who rallied for justice for Floyd, in addition to several other victims of police misconduct, and the ending of systemic racism.
Halfway into 2020, a flurry of Black Lives Matter marches were organized by impassioned American youth in the City of Hackensack at the Court House that drew hundreds of peaceful demonstrators demanding police reform. Four months later, three days after Columbus Day, members of Black Lives Matter Bergen County and the POC Bergenfield Alumni returned to the city, this time, to raise awareness of the injustices faced by indigenous people and to demand the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Park in Hackensack -- a resting place they would also like renamed.
“We would like to amplify their voices as fellow people of color and allies,” said protest organizer Jay S., a Teaneck resident and senior at Dwight-Englewood, of indigenous people. “Initially, I was thinking about how I learned about Columbus Day in school. I was thinking of elementary school experiences as a black person. There is whitewashing of history and a blanket we put over these male white figures who discovered America even though he didn’t.”
Columbus was an Italian explorer who, as legend has it, discovered America in the late 15th Century in the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and has a federal holiday named for him. Three days after Columbus Day, which took place this year on Monday, October 12, a group of almost two dozen protesters took to Columbus Park in the late afternoon of October 15 from which they marched to the Bergen County Jail demanding the ending of the holiday. In lieu of patriotism, protesters claim the day celebrates genocide and the overshadowing of Native American history.
“The City of Hackensack has this statue honoring him in the park, which I thought was really disgusting,” said Jay. “It has to be removed considering the injustice indigenous people face.”
At the rally, protesters held up signs reading, “Remove the statue. This is Stolen Land,” and “Columbus was a Killer, He Should Not Be Honored With a Statue” with the rally cry, “When indigenous lands are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, land back.”
Currently, there is a petition on Change.org being circulated by a group calling themselves The Purpose to the Hackensack City Council demanding the removal of the statue, which has over 1,100 signatures to date. Their petition, reads, in part, the following:
“The history of Christopher Columbus is told through the evil lies of the white man to push the agenda of White Supremacy and how the white man did everything to make America what it is today. With a name like ‘Hackensack,’ as the name of our city, we shouldn’t have a statue of the man who violated a generation of people. We can’t change history, but we can come together and glorify those who deserve it.”
Meanwhile, the Hackensack Chapter of the UNICO National and concerned Italian-American citizens have a petition of their own circulated to the City Council opposing any attempts to remove the statue and renaming the park on West Franklin Street, as they believe the naming was in-line with recognizing the contributions of Italian immigrants during the World War II era who settled in the city at that time and the First Ward acting as the landing zone for most of their people. The statue was gifted to Hackensack by UNICO in 1974 and each year, UNICO presents the “Christopher Columbus Distinguished Community Service Award” to an “outstanding citizen” for their contributions to the city, a number of the recipients being elected officials.
To date, the Hackensack Chapter of UNICO National has nearly 1,900 signatures. According to their petition on Charge.org, the UNICO organization refutes the claims of racism against Columbus, praising him as an “iconic symbol” to remember our ancestors:
“The popular conversation surrounding Columbus today is filled with misconceptions. Christopher Columbus never owned slaves or brought any to the Western Hemisphere from Africa. He was not a racist, he did not consider the native Indians to be racially inferior, and in fact, praised their generosity, innocence, and intelligence and had friendly relations with them. Columbus did not commit genocide. The death of many native Indians was actually due to the lack of immunity to such diseases as small pox, typhoid, diphtheria, measles, and mumps that they contracted from the Spanish explorers.”
While the City Mayor and Council declined to comment on their consideration of the statue’s removal, Jay says she hopes their efforts will one day pay off.
“I hope that it will be removed,” said Jay. “I think that seeing the civil unrest and the removal of statues across the country will inspire Hackensack to get it together and realize that what they’re doing is not OK… I hope that one day legislation will decide maybe they’re onto something, maybe it's a bad thing. Italian-American people should get a new hero.”