At Large  October 9, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

New York City Bill Proposes Amendments to Problematic Monuments

Wikimedia Commons

The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol after a group led by American Indian Movement members tore it down in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10, 2020.

In recent years, America has witnessed a profound transformation in its approach to monuments honoring historic figures with ties to slavery or other crimes against humanity. As society grapples with its nuanced historical legacies, a new bill proposed in New York stands as a pivotal development, poised to reshape the way the nation addresses its complex past and the symbols that represent it. 

The bill, introduced this past June, proposes that the Public Design Commission should remove works of art on City property that depict a person who either owned enslaved people, directly benefitted economically from slavery, or who participated in crimes against indigenous people. If the Commission does not want to remove the statue or monument, it must then install a plaque that explains their crimes. As reported by the Gothamist last week, this law is being sponsored by a number of representatives, including Sandra Nurse, District 37’s councilmember and an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The bill comes after a similar effort brought about by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. In 2018, he issued a 42-page report on controversial monuments in the city. Though the report was exhaustive, the results were far from it: the commission only recommended the removal of one statue, and even though it was removed from Central Park, it was reinstated in Green-Wood Cemetery. During De Blasio's tenure, the city did approve the proposal by the Museum of Natural History to remove the controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback flanked by a Native American man and an African man.

Wikimedia Commons

Vandalism to the Statue of Albert Pike following the George Floyd protests.

Even after all the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there were no immediate City bills that proposed a rethinking of our public monuments that depict Confederates, slave-owners, and colonizers. Even the statue of Christopher Columbus still stands tall at Columbus Circle today. 

“I stare at [a portrait of George Washington] every time I’m in that chamber," Councilmember Nurse told Gothamist. "I’m now a council member in a very old governing institution that was set up during a time where my very existence would be illegal.” Washington owned more than 300 slaves, according to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. 

This proposed bill does not wish to rewrite history, but rather, put it in context for the contemporary audience it is now beholden to. “From Washington to Columbus to [slave owner Peter] Stuyvesant," said Councilmemeber Shekar Krishnan who is also a sponsor of the bill, "many of the figures who occupy our most valuable spaces were both historically important and deeply flawed human beings."

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