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Crews remove the box covering the statue of Christopher Columbus in Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Crews removed the plywood box that had been placed over a Philadelphia statue of Christopher Columbus that saw tense clashes in 2020 between supporters of the monument and opponents who saw it as a symbol of supremacy white.

The box was removed on Sunday evening, to the applause of a small crowd of statue supporters. The work took place two days after a state judge ordered the removal of the box, saying that if the city disagreed with the ‘message’ sent by the statue, it could add its own plaque with what she wanted to convey.

The statue has been the subject of a long-running dispute between the city and the Friends of Marconi Plaza, where the likeness is located. It dates from 1876 and was presented to the city by the Italian-American community to commemorate the nation’s centennial, according to the state’s 16-page Commonwealth Court ruling.

Proponents say they see Columbus as an emblem of the city’s deep Italian heritage. George Bochetto, an attorney who represents Friends of Marconi Plaza, said he was “pleased” with the decision, telling WPVI-TV in a statement that “we are not a company run by canceled cultural mobs” and that ” all ethnic groups can proudly protect and honor their diverse heritages.

Kevin Lessard, spokesman for Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, said Friday the decision disappointed officials.

“We will also continue to explore our options for a path forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the stories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds,” Lessard said.

Kenney said Christopher Columbus had been revered for centuries as an explorer, but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving indigenous peoples and imposing punishments such as severed limbs or even death.

In May 2020, protesters across the country rallied against police brutality and racism following the murder of George Floyd. Some in Philadelphia focused on the statue of Columbus, arguing that the explorer’s actions should not be celebrated. In response, supporters of the statue began to gather around it – some carrying guns or baseball bats – and said they intended to protect it from vandals.

Around this time, statues of the Italian explorer were removed in Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware, while protesters in Richmond, Virginia tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus, the set her on fire and threw her in a lake.

Kenney called for the statue’s removal from Philadelphia, arguing it was a matter of public safety, and a city arts panel and historical commission in 2020 both agreed to go ahead with the removal of the statue.

But last year, a judge overturned the city’s decision, saying it had failed to provide evidence that removing the statue was necessary to protect the public.

The box covering the statue had been painted in stripes of green, white and red, reflecting the Italian flag, at the request of the member of the city council who represents the district.

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