Gov. Phil Murphy will let municipalities decide what to do with statues of Christopher Columbus as the historical figure’s legacy again falls under scrutiny amid weeks of protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd.
“Columbus Day has always been sort of an iconic day for the Italian American community … but by the same token, if there are statues, symbols that are offensive to folks, we have to have a reckoning with that,” Murphy said Monday. “It seems to me there’s a way still to be able to do both, and I would suggest we leave it to the municipalities to make that decision.”
In recent weeks, Black Lives Matter protests railing against police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death have turned their attention to statues and other symbols they say celebrate racism or racist figures.
At least five New Jersey towns have faced their own reckonings over statues of Columbus, an Italian navigator who is credited with establishing the first European contact with South and Central America.
Statues in Camden and West Orange have been removed. A statue in Garfield was vandalized, one has been relocated in Hammonton, and local groups in Ocean Township and Jersey City are calling on officials to get rid of sculptures of Columbus.
At issue is the treatment of indigenous peoples in lands where Columbus’s expeditions landed.
While scholars differ on some details, the expeditions are credited with killing hundreds of thousands of Taíno people indigenous to the region, either through transmission of diseases endemic to Europe, like smallpox and malaria, or through enslavement and the hard labor that followed.
While some states have renamed Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples’ Day, New Jersey, which has a large population of Italian Americans, has only seen such renamings in a handful of municipalities.
Murphy declined to say whether he would rule out attending any Columbus Day events, though the governor suggested he would be on board with measures recognizing the full breadth of Columbus’s legacy.
“I think we have to acknowledge that and find a way to be able to both celebrate Italian American heritage on the one hand but also remove symbols that offend people,” Murphy said.