SOUTHINGTON — The crowd of a few hundred that gathered for the unveiling of a Christopher Columbus bust Monday at the municipal center included supporters from Italian-American groups and protesters with signs referring to the explorer as a “mass murderer.”
The estimated 50 protesters were silent throughout the ceremony, but they made their presence felt by standing around the monument while the white sheet was removed.
Italian-American groups started fundraising for the monument and bust six years ago. Two years ago, the project was unanimously approved by the Town Council. The bust was installed last month in front of the municipal center, at 200 N. Main St.
Antonio Cusano, president of the Sons of Italy and past president of Southington Unico, said he was pleased with Monday’s ceremony, and he said protest is a part of democracy. His group only became aware of opposition to Columbus in the past few months, Cusano said.
For Cusano and many others at the unveiling, Columbus was a brave Italian explorer whose voyage eventually led to the immigration of their ancestors to the United States.
Without Columbus, “a lot of Europeans would have never been able to immigrate here for a better future,” Cusano said.
Protesters’ signs pointed to the other consequences of Columbus’ arrival, such as slavery and genocide.
“Not all Italians honor Columbus,” read one sign. “Columbus was a mass murderer,” read another.
Several signs mentioned that Columbus couldn’t have “discovered” a land already inhabited by people.
Erica Roggeveen Byrne, founder of Southington Women for Progress, organized the protest. The goal was a peaceful demonstration that showed opposition. She felt the goal was achieved.
“People were respectful, people were silent. We didn’t interrupt the dedication in any way,” Byrne said.
While some supporters took photos of the monument when it was unveiled, others complained that their photos were marred by protesters and their signs in the background. A protester with an upside-down American flag also angered some in attendance.
Due to the rain, most of the ceremony was held indoors. Protesters gathered outside and then entered the municipal center but found there was almost no room for them in the packed council chambers. Many then left to stand behind the monument outside, forming a backdrop as the bust was unveiled.
More than a dozen police officers were in and around the municipal center. Columbus statues in New Haven and Middletown were vandalized in recent days.
Two ACLU legal observers, wearing blue vests, were also present.
Several Town Council members and state Sen. Joe Markley spoke at the ceremony, along with representatives of Italian-American groups, including the Knights of Columbus.
Markley urged listeners to avoid the “arrogance of the present” by judging past figures too harshly. While some of Columbus’ actions were wrong, he said, the explorer should be recognized for his good qualities and how his voyage shaped the history of Western civilization.
“What we should look for is the virtue of history,” Markley said. “His virtue was his unwavering courage. Today we honor a man who challenged the greatest single barrier of his world.”
Town Council Chairman Michael Riccio said he was glad for the discussion about Columbus. He acknowledged that Columbus had a mixed legacy but that there was good that could be recognized.
“Columbus wasn’t perfect,” Riccio said. “He was a product of his time. His voyage was the first true steps towards globalization.”