Panel begins debate on removing statues from MN Capitol

Ropes a tied around the neck of a statue.
Two ropes are tied around the neck of a Christopher Columbus statue before a group of people pull it down at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on June 10, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

When attendees of an American Indian Movement protest slung a rope around the Christopher Columbus statue on the Capitol grounds and pulled it down two weeks ago, there were distinct reactions. 

Some cheered the removal of an icon that, to them, represented oppression and misplaced honor. Others stewed at a brazen act of vandalism — in broad daylight and with law enforcement nearby. No one has yet been criminally charged, and the damage has now been estimated at more than $150,000.

A state board led by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan met Thursday against that backdrop.

“Today’s focus won’t be on the Columbus statue but instead taking a step back and figuring out what is missing from our current process,” she said

What’s missing, it seems, is any clear direction about how people can petition to have long-standing historical markers reevaluated and potentially removed. The Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board will embark on crafting a policy that defines that process and invites thoughtful discussion.

“Who are we hearing from? Does everyone know how to be heard? How are we listening? How can we be responsive to the many different visions of our Capitol that we know are out there?” Flanagan asked. “And how can we provide the space for those visions to be shared, understood and realized?”

There’s no question the discussion is occurring during fraught times with monuments to political leaders, military generals and other figures falling almost by the day, board member Sen. Carla Nelson said.

“It’s not just Minnesota,” Nelson, R-Rochester, said. “These things are happening across our state and nation. It is imperative that we update our laws accordingly.”

But Nelson said unlawful removal of statues and commemorations shouldn’t be tolerated. Even if modern values and sensibilities don’t match those of the past, she wondered if erasing landmarks all together is the way to go.  

“And I don’t believe that we can remove our history by tearing down statues or removing paintings,” Nelson said. “But we can and we should, I believe, reinterpret that history.”

Board member Alicia Belton said just putting up a new plaque next to a questionable monument isn’t the right solution.

“We shouldn’t willingly do things that we know are hurting people. When people are coming to see these monuments, peoples’ hearts are breaking,” Belton said.

It was a sentiment echoed by newly appointed board member Kate Beane, a Dakota public historian. 

“For Indigenous people, having a statue like this in front of the State Capitol, for us, it’s as if there was a Capitol Adolf Hitler,” Beane said. “Do we put on a plaque to reinterpret that — the horrors that are associated with individuals or do we do something more?”

A man stands on the neck of a statue.
American Indian Movement member Mike Forcia, who is Anishanaabe, stands on the neck of a statue of Chrstopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The Columbus statue controversy could get more attention in the weeks ahead. 

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, has established an oversight committee to review what he sees as flawed decisions by political and law enforcement leaders after the police killing of George Floyd. Days of unrest led to significant damage, including at the Capitol.

“It doesn’t really matter who the statue was for, we don’t let a mob come in and tear it down,” Gazelka said. “It doesn’t really matter who it is or what it is. We need conversations, we have processes about what stays and what goes.”

Democrats said the Legislature would be better off focusing on disparities in the criminal justice system and police accountability than on destruction of property.

They also criticized Gazelka for not consulting with the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in recent weeks.

“If Senate Republicans really want to help the Black community, they should start by talking to us and recognizing this is not just a Minneapolis-St. Paul issue,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. “Sixty percent of police deadly encounters have taken place in greater Minnesota.”

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