When will Utica’s and Herkimer’s Statues Celebrating Slavers be Taken Down?

by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Propelled by the rebellion that has swept the nation following the police killing of George Floyd, on June 7th demonstrators in Richmond, VA – the Confederacy’s former capitol – tore down the statue of the Confederacy’s former president Jefferson Davis. It was just one of many monuments that serve as symbols of slavery and white supremacy that was recently torn down. In a sign of the times, back in 2017 The New York Times of all publications posted an article giving advice on how to tear down statues. The Southern Poverty Law Center also published a fascinating report about the history of Confederate monuments and how most serve more as celebrations of racism rather then as memorials of veterans. Most of these monuments in the US were erected in the 1900s as part of a political project to defend segregation and myths around the “lost cause.”

But statues of Confederate politicians and generals in the US are not the only monuments being vandalized or taken down. Across the Atlantic, demonstrators in Bristol, UK knocked down the statue of slave holder Robert Milligan and threw it in the harbor. In Belgium people have been vandalizing statues of King Leopold and the government has quietly taken them down. Leopold oversaw the genocide of an estimated 10-15 million Africans when he was the Sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885-1908.

And while many may have the impression that monuments celebrating slave owners and slave traders are unique to the South in the US, similar monuments are scattered across the North. Christopher Columbus monuments have also been the target of vandalism, destruction and removal all over the US and in other nations. In Miami, FL the Columbus monument was spray painted with graffiti. In Boston, a stone statue of Columbus was decapitated.

Utica also has a statue of Columbus, and the Village of Herkimer has a statue of General Nicholas Herkimer, a local slave owner who has also been honored by the fact that the village, town, county, schools and a college were named after him. It is believed that General Herkimer had up to 33 slaves, making him one of the two largest slave owners in the Mohawk Valley. The Herkimer Home does not hide this history in tours provided to guests.

A great resource to learn about the true extent of the horrors and atrocities committed by Columbus can be read in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present in his chapter “Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress.” Derek Scarlino of Love and Rage also wrote an article about Columbus Day, saying in sum, “Enough with Columbus Day. It’s an irrelevant celebration of a monster.”

herkimer
This statue of Herkimer was erected in 1907 in Myers Park, Herkimer, New York

Just this past week, interest has grown in Utica to address this. Mariesa Cozza created an online petition to be sent to the Utica Common Council to tear down the city’s statue of Columbus. So far, the petition has grown by over 500 signatures. It is addressed to the City Council of Utica. There is no known petition to remove the monument of Herkimer yet. It’s worth re-posting the entire language of Mariesa Cozza’s petition here.

We the undersigned support the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue located at the intersection of Memorial Parkway and Mohawk St in Utica.

We believe it is high time that the City of Utica is more inclusive of the original inhabitants of Upstate New York, indigenous people who were massacred by colonizers like Columbus.

Utica has a rich history filled with diversity and inclusion, and this statue contradicts the values our city claims to stand for.

What this statue, along with others celebrating colonialism, represents is violence, racism, marginalization, and the continued denial of the genocide of indigenous people. Columbus killed millions of indigenous people through slavery and policies of systematic extermination. Under his rule his men hanged indigenous people in mass, roasted them at the stake, hacked children to be used as dog food.  Columbus was a slaver of indigenous people and facilitated the sexual exploitation of indigenous women and girls as young as nine; He profited from the pain of the communities and this is being commemorated in a city as diverse as Utica. Columbus is the architect of a genocide that is comparable to Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

October 12, 1492 marks the beginning of a genocide, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. 100 million Indigenous people were massacred on this continent. A genocide that exterminated 95% of the native population.  It is the largest and most atrocious genocide ever committed in the history of humanity. In solidarity solidarity with the descendants of the 5% who survived, we are asking the city of Utica to stop honoring the man who started this genocide, that indigenous people are still under, known as Christopher Columbus.  The statue of Columbus represents his legacy of mass murdering, raping, pillaging, torturing, and the enslaving Indigenous men, women, children, and babies of the western hemisphere.

And while some claim that both monuments are a celebration of the American War of Independence in the case of Herkimer, or Italian heritage in the case of Columbus, why not instead erect monuments of those more deserving of that honor? There is no shortage of local abolitionists, Iroquois warriors and leaders, union activists, women activists, or any number of actual freedom fighters that can be erected in their place. Some locals have suggested that instead of Columbus there could instead be a statue of Sacco and Vanzetti, Carlo Tresca, or any number of famous Italians.

Local politicians have thus far been silent on this matter. If there is no will from them to take down these symbols of slavery and white supremacy, it will have to be up to protesters and activists to push for their removal. Although there was one demonstration at the Columbus statue on Columbus Day in 2015, time will tell if activists in Utica and the Mohawk Valley today are up to the challenge.

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