By FRED T. ROSSI
Specially Written for The Leader/Times
SCOTCH PLAINS – The township council unanimously agreed July 21 that the monument honoring Christopher Columbus should remain outside of the municipal building.
The governing body’s vote followed nearly an hour of comments from residents — who were overwhelmingly supportive of keeping the monument, which was dedicated nearly 22 years ago — and came after more than three weeks of social media debate and dueling online petitions about the monument’s propriety. In the wake of several high-profile police killings of black civilians that led to massive demonstrations and massive marches, communities around the country have been discussing whether to take down their own tributes to controversial individuals from American history.
Prior to the July 21 council meeting, several dozen residents marched from the Italian-American Club on Valley Road to the municipal building in a show of support to keeping the white marble statue depicting a hand holding a sphere that is half solid and half steel grid with three stainless steel sails and is dedicated to Columbus.
At the start of the meeting, prior to the council’s discussion of the matter, a resident called into the virtual meeting to express her support in removing the statue. That statement was followed by deputy township clerk Melissa Pfeiffer reading aloud from letters from 16 township residents expressing support for keeping the monument in place outside the municipal building. Then seven other residents called in to voice their opinions with some favoring the monument and others opposing it.
Several of the residents voicing support of the statue cited the strong sense of Italian heritage they said it represents. Others noted the criticisms of Columbus’ human rights record and said it was wrong to judge the actions of someone 500 years ago by applying modern-day standards. One caller, who said he had written books about Columbus and had investigated the allegations, said that “people are falling for a hoax.” Another caller warned that if the statue was removed, books deemed offensive by residents or library officials might be next. Some pointed out that forced slavery, a charge lodged against Columbus, was not uncommon among Native Americans.
The handful of opponents who participated in the meeting said it was wrong to honor someone they said had engaged in serious human rights abuses upon his arrival in the Americas. Among them was George Ulerio II, the 21-year-old resident whose online petition calling for the monument’s removal set off the debate. He told the council this week that there was “no secret” about the crimes committed by Columbus.
Mr. Ulerio’s late June petition effort was soon followed by another online petition, this one in support of keeping the monument, which was designed by Union County College student Lennox Brown. The promoter of the latter effort, resident Joseph Sarno, also called into the meeting to reiterate his support for the monument, which he said honors the man “recognized as being the catalyst for developing America.”
After the petitions had been publicized, deputy mayor Josh Losardo stated he favored a council discussion about the propriety of the monument, which was donated by the Italian-American Club, the local UNICO chapter and the Knights of Columbus and formally dedicated on Columbus Day 1998. After the council had heard residents’ comments, Mr. Losardo said he thought it a worthwhile exercise for “people with different points of view to hear each other out.”
He said the monument represents more than Columbus, saying it represents Italian-American “pride in this town and in this country and how proud they are of their ancestors” for coming to Scotch Plains starting in the late 1800s. After Councilman Ted Spera questioned why Mr. Losardo had posted comments on the petition opposing the statue but had not done likewise on the supportive petition, Mr. Losardo said that he “didn’t mean to send mixed messages” and that his written comments on the petition were not meant to signal his support of the anti-monument movement.
Other council members were also supportive of keeping the monument, with Councilwoman Elizabeth Stamler acknowledging the “uncomfortable discussion,” but saying that the monument is “bigger than just Columbus.” Councilman Roshan White favored keeping the monument but noted that if the municipal building is ultimately razed as part of the downtown redevelopment efforts, the monument and others on the property will have to be moved. Mr. White asked interested civic groups to start thinking about where to relocate the Columbus monument and others tributes. Mr. Losardo added that perhaps a new inscription could be put on the monument that doesn’t mention Columbus but instead focused in Italian pride.
Admitting that Columbus was a “controversial man,” Mayor Alexander Smith closed out the discussion by citing the positive work of several local Italian-American groups, including the Knights of Columbus, UNICO and the Italian-American Club. To move the monument, he said, would be “greatly disrespectful” to past and present Italian-Americans in Scotch Plains. But he ended his remarks by saying “our real work isn’t done” in the fight against racism and bigotry. He said his work on the on the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Committee formed last year by the Scotch Plains and Fanwood governing bodies, along with the Board of Education, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerium and Social Justice Matters is “among the proudest things I’ve done” and said it was vital to continue to work “to remove the vestiges of racism.”