A hearing on a petition that calls on Buffalo lawmakers to remove the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Park — and rename the park — prompted a spirited debate Tuesday in Common Council chambers.
Proponents of removing the statue, as proposed by the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition, argued it's unseemly to have a monument to a historical figure who, they said, committed atrocities against indigenous peoples and who they claimed didn't discover America.
"There are alternative theories about who got here first," said Lesley Haynes, a member of the coalition, one of the speakers during the hearing held by the Council's Legislation Committee. "Some will say it was the Vikings, Irish monks or Leif Erickson."
"Why does Christopher Columbus get all of the credit?" Haynes asked.
"He wasn't the first, and neither were the Vikings. That is a very Eurocentric view," she said.
Brandon Absher, a college faculty member and coalition member, said lawmakers and city residents should ask themselves if Columbus is representative of the values they claim to hold. Absher ran off a litany of abuses Columbus allegedly committed against indigenous peoples in the Caribbean.
"So, if the purpose of the statue is to honor the person, we should ask ourselves, 'Does he represent the values of the people here?'" Absher said. "I think he doesn't."
"You will hear later that many people believe it was a part of the culture of the time and place, that slavery was an accepted practice, that atrocities against human beings were normal," Absher said. "While many people did those things, there were also people in opposition."
"We do not live in 15th century Spain," Absher said. "We live in 21st century America."
Eric Bauer, a West Side resident, said it was unfair to hold Columbus to account for those abuses.
"If 100 years from now, somebody was telling the story of your life, would you want them to focus on your shortcomings, which I'm sure each of us has?" Bauer asked. "Or would you like them to focus on the positive genius that you contributed to this world?"
"I would choose the latter. I would want people to focus on the positive achievements that I brought on this world," Bauer said.
After he spoke before the Council's committee, Bauer told reporters that he spent 9:30 p.m. Sunday to 7:30 a.m. Monday guarding the Columbus statue, from his car, to make sure it was not vandalized. He said he turned his car lights on three times to scare off groups of young men on bicycles he suspected were seeking to deface the statue prior to the Columbus Day holiday.
"I would ask the Council, please don't tear down our history. Protect it. Embrace it. This is what makes up the United States of America. This is the greatest nation in the world," Bauer said.
Donald A. Alessi, of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York, said Italian-Americans "have adopted Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day as a time to celebrate the rich traditions of Italian-Americans and the enormous accomplishments of Italian people."
"If we remove the Columbus monument and rename Columbus Park for alleged misconduct over half a millennia ago, should we not go even further and remove all references to Columbus on streets, cities, books, songs and rivers?" he said.
"Such foolishness would be to deny the events of history — and a gross absurdity. And what would we gain?" Alessi said.
"We should not and we will not abandon the Columbus monument at Columbus Park and our Italian heritage and traditions. We have come too far as an ethnic group to retreat to an outpost of guilt," he said.
Delaware Council Member Joel P. Feroleto had indicated that lawmakers were not likely to take any action on the petition to remove the statue.
Following the hearing, the committee received and filed the item, with no plans to take any future action.
Feroleto said residents shouldn't have to choose between honoring Columbus and indigenous people.
"Most of my colleagues are in favor of keeping the statue in place in Columbus Parkway," Feroleto said. "I was there Monday with a group of Italian Americans presenting a wreath to the statue of Christopher Columbus, and I look forward to doing that every year."