By Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2020

PHILADELPHIA — A group of people gathered around a statue of Christopher Columbus in south Philadelphia over the weekend, saying they intended to protect it from vandals amid the recent protests – despite criticism from the mayor.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that about 100 people clustered around the statue of the explorer at Marconi Plaza on Saturday, at least two with guns and others with baseball bats. Thomas Easterday, 50, said the goal of the gathering was simple.

“Protecting the statue from these rioters who want to take it down,” he said. A woman nearby held up a sign saying “Stand Up, South Philly Won’t Stand Down.”

On Sunday, Mayor Jim Kenney said in a Twitter post that officials were aware of “groups of armed individuals ‘protecting’” the statue.

“All vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city,” he said. “We are also aware of an apparent assault caught on video tape, as well as possible restrictions placed on journalists filming the event. These incidents are under investigation at this time.”

Easterday and others said they hoped not only to ward off any vandals but to send a message to the mayor that they wouldn’t approve of removing the statue in the middle of the night – as the mayor did with the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo from a building near City Hall earlier this month.

In Philadelphia, a city with a deep Italian heritage, Columbus is celebrated with an annual holiday parade, and supporters at the statue said they considered him an emblem of their heritage.

“It would be over my dead body before they got to this statue,” said Anthony Ruggiero, 41, wearing an Italia jersey. “This is a part of history.”

Statues of Columbus were earlier removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware.

In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake last week. On Friday in Columbia, South Carolina, the first U.S. city named for Columbus, a statue of the explorer was removed and placed into storage for safekeeping after it was vandalized several times in a week.

Across the nation, statues of Columbus are often vandalized on Columbus Day in October as the 15th-century explorer has become a polarizing figure. Native American advocates have also long pressed states to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day over concerns that Columbus spurred centuries of genocide against indigenous populations in the Americas.

After Saturday’s day of peaceful large protests, unrest flared again at night as several hundred people gathered in north Philadelphia, a mini-mart was robbed and at least one police vehicle was damaged. Police reported that fireworks were launched at a responding police helicopter before the crowd was dispersed, WPVI reported.

In another part of north Philadelphia early Sunday, police said several men threw explosives at an ATM and two employees of a takeout restaurant, WPVI reported. Police said the men threw an explosive at a New Century restaurant ATM at about 1 a.m. Sunday, then allegedly threw another through an opening in plexiglass at the counter at two employees, who were unhurt. Police said the suspects didn’t get any money from the ATM.

Police and federal authorities have been investigating explosions at dozens of cash machines in and near Philadelphia since unrest began following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. One man has died in what authorities said seems to be a coordinated effort to steal cash machines or take the money inside.

Floyd, who was black, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck even as he pleaded for air and stopped moving.

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