Someone threw red paint on a statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston on Wednesday and spray-painted it with the phrase “Black Lives Matter" -- the latest in a recent backlash against monuments that memorialize racist white men.
Memorials of the Confederate variety have been branded with the slogan in Baltimore; St. Louis; Durham, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Austin, Texas; Asheville, North Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia.
It’s quite obvious why Confederate monuments are being targeted. Just two weeks ago, a white man executed nine black churchgoers in Charleston in arguably the most vicious anti-black terrorist attack after the civil rights movement. Since then, the removal of Confederate remembrances has been at the center of a national debate.
But defacing a monument honoring Columbus hits a deeper nerve. He was long dead when the Confederacy fought against the North in an attempt to preserve slavery. But while the connection may not be as direct, it’s clear why someone threw blood (back) in his face.
Columbus represents a longer, deeper legacy of racism in the Western Hemisphere. He and his cohorts were genocidal racists preoccupied with acquiring gold and raping Native women. Columbus' "discovery" of the “New" World -- which, for the record, was already inhabited -- linked Europe to the Americas and ushered in the transatlantic slave trade.
In essence, the Confederacy's existence can be traced back directly to Columbus, who made most of his income from slavery and was the first slave trader in the Americas. Spanish explorers who landed in the Americas after Columbus also enslaved Natives to search for gold and silver. As the Native population was decimated by disease, malnutrition and overall inhumane treatment, enslaved Africans were brought in as replacements and Columbus' son became the first African slave trader in 1505.
Columbus laid the foundation for institutional racism and is not worthy of honor -- yet honoring racist white men is an American tradition. And those who rebuke such memorializing are being called “vandals” in nearly every article referencing these acts of resistance.
I’d like to suggest a different term for whoever defaced these monuments: political activists practicing civil disobedience. Portraying those who did this as "vandals" -- which hums the same tune as "thug" and "rioter" -- alludes to criminality without any nuance or acknowledgement that these folks are bringing attention to the romanticized history being honored by the statue in Boston.
"Columbus' willingness to brave the unknown led to his remarkable find, bringing about further explorations that enormously enhanced the intellectual, commercial, and demographic fabric of Europe and the Americas," then-President George W. Bush said on Columbus Day in 2001. "The stories of Columbus' voyage became a symbol of the quest for knowledge and understanding of the world, and it laid the historical foundation upon which much of America's future progress was built."
When whiteness is attacked in any way, the person who does so is automatically criminalized. Yet nonwhite people have been, and continue to be, vandalized by white supremacists since Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Defacing his monument is an acknowledgement of how racism extends above the Mason-Dixon Line; a clarification of what these monuments actually represent to the masses; a loud reprimanding of the systems that oppress nonwhite people; and a proclamation that black lives do indeed matter.
But it’s commonplace for some Americans to care more about the destruction of property -- like the infamous Baltimore CVS -- than they do about what these structures symbolize and how their history affects nonwhite people. One woman interviewed by a Boston ABC affiliate said that someone who genuinely believed “Black Lives Matter” wouldn’t deface monuments.
That idea is preposterous. If anything, people who care about black lives and believe they matter would participate in such acts of civil disobedience. Attacking these monuments shouldn't be taken too literally. It’s not an assault on public property, but a revolt against the legacies those properties uphold.
According to Michael Allen, a lecturer in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, damaging racist monuments is akin to the toppling of Communist statues after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"If the monuments are strong statements of past values," he told The Associated Press, "defacing them is the easiest and loudest way to rebuke those statements."