Political tension rises after Columbus statue falls

People cheer over a fallen statue.
Mike Forcia raises his hands in the air as people photograph the fallen Christopher Columbus statue at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The toppling of the Christopher Columbus statue that stood outside Minnesota’s Capitol since the 1930s is fanning political tensions among those who work inside the building. 

A demonstration led by American Indians on Wednesday left the Columbus statue face down on the sidewalk. The 10-foot bronze statue of the Italian explorer was pulled down despite a warning from the State Patrol. No one was arrested on scene, but charges are possible.

Gov. Tim Walz said those responsible won’t get off without punishment.

"There will be consequences,” Walz said Thursday. “This was an act of civil disobedience. The people doing it clearly understood and are prepared to take those consequences."

The governor said he wishes it would have gone differently.

"I certainly do not condone, nor is this the right way to go about this change."

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, said she wasn’t sad to see the Columbus statue gone.

"I'm not going to perform for folks,” she said. “I'm not going to feign sadness. I will not shed a tear over the loss of a statue that honored someone that by of his own admission sold 9- and 10-year-old girls into sex slavery. So, let me start there."

Flanagan is chair of the board that oversees monuments on the Capitol and has said a wholesale review is long overdue. 

“All Minnesotans should feel and welcomed and valued when they step into and on the grounds of their house, the Minnesota State Capitol,” she said.

The Columbus statue has been defaced over the years but survived calls for its removal.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety said Thursday that there were no orders from agency higher-ups or the governor’s office for troopers to stay back.

“Troopers and the Department of Public Safety tribal liaison were attempting to negotiate with the organizer when the demonstrators decided to tear it down,” agency communications director Bruce Gordon said in an email.

Gordon said the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will conduct an investigation and turn the case over to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for possible charges related to destruction of public property.

But the way the statue was felled as state troopers hung back brought swift criticism from Republican lawmakers and even a fellow Democratic legislator, state Sen. David Tomassoni from the Iron Range. They said the tear-down amounted to mob rule.

“Wanton destruction of property on the Capitol grounds isn’t acceptable and is unlawful. It should have been stopped!” Tomassoni wrote on Twitter. He didn’t return a phone message, but in his post said charges and fines are necessary.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said he doesn’t have a problem with removing a statue that no longer stands the test of time. But that must happen through normal order, he said.

‘“I don’t agree with destroying art. We have a process to deal with it,” Urdahl, a former history teacher, said. “Acts of destruction are just wrong in this case.”

The Columbus statue was loaded on a flatbed truck and taken to an unknown location before dusk on Wednesday. What happens next with the statue and the space where it stood is unclear.

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