Protesters march on Bayshore to demand removal of Tampa’s Columbus statue

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On Sunday afternoon, the Christopher Columbus statue near the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and the Platt Street bridge in South Tampa was covered in bloody handprints, with black body bags lying at its base. 

Despite thunderstorms, over 50 people arrived at Columbus Statue Park to demonstrate against the monument. The event was part of a nationwide Indigenous People’s Day of Rage, which calls for an end to Columbus Day, and to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day

The demonstration began with a march down Bayshore where upset motorists shouted, “Stop blocking the road,” and, “All lives matter”. 

During the march, red dresses were held in the air on poles to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women who face murder rates 10 times the national average. Body bags were dragged down the road to reflect Native lives lost due to colonization.

RELATED: Tampa Police are still guarding Bayshore’s controversial Christopher Columbus statue

As the protest got closer to Columbus Statue Park, people left the street to stand in front of the statue. The body bags were laid at its base next to signs that read, “White supremacy is terrorism.” The crowd gathered around to hear members of Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE), who organized the event, sing a Lakota mourning song and recognize a moment of silence for the victims of Christopher Columbus. 

The statue depicts Columbus with a sword in one hand and an oar in the other.  “The statue is of him pleading his case to the Spanish court,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “It’s a very common, standard statue pose.” 

The construction was sponsored by the Ybor City Rotary Club and erected there on Columbus Day, October 12, 1953.

“It was designed by a Cuban artist named Alberto Sabas,” says Kite-Powell. “At the time it was seen as a unifying symbol between Spain, Cuba and the U.S., and the dedication brought quite a few dignitaries and local and state celebrities, including Cuban and Italian ambassadors to the U.S.” 

For decades, the statue has been a source of controversy for Native American people. Columbus statues are a major target in America, with multiple being beheaded and torn down. On the Fourth of July a Columbus statue was pulled down and rolled into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. In Buffalo, New York, the city removed a Columbus statue out of anticipation that protesters might do it themselves. 

For weeks in July, Tampa Police were seen guarding Bayshore’s controversial statue.

Speakers began discussing the history of Columbus, how Native lands were stolen by him, how Native people were tortured and sold by him; how he practiced pedophilia and sex slavery. They pointed out Columbus’ legacy of genocide and talked about the injustice of continuing to celebrate such a person in 2020.  

As they were explaining these grim subjects, counter-protesters wearing American flag shirts showed up to start filming the crowd and preaching the benefits of Trump’s America. A security team ran up to stop them from harassing the event, using open umbrellas and the strength of their voices.

The counter-protesters said they were calling backup and the police, but the demonstration went on. Cynamon Gonzales, a member of FIREE, told the crowd that she brought a prepared speech because she tends to get emotional when talking about the suffering of Native people. 

“We’ve had our lands stolen from us and our people stolen from us,” she said, fighting back tears. 

Despite the impassioned display of Native people, the counter-protesters continued to try to intervene. One ran toward the crowd, and when he collided with a young protester who was standing in place, said he was assaulted and threatened to call the police on the protester. 

In front of the statue, FIREE member Sheridan Murphy said, “Tampa’s had enough time. If you want peace and justice, the city needs to take it down. If you don’t, the people will do it themselves.”

For the past 28 years, Murphy and other Native activists have called upon city council and various mayors to remove the statue. FIREE says that Tampa city council and Mayor Jane Castor should do the right thing and take the statue down immediately.

Upon the call for the statue to be removed, FIREE members dipped their hands in a bucket full of fake blood. They called upon all members of the crowd that stand against colonization and Columbus to mark the base of the statue with bloody handprints.

Bicycle police from Tampa Police Department arrived as soon as this occurred, blocked the statue and the protest was quickly surrounded by upwards of 30 cops. Undercover cop cars blocked a lane of Bayshore. A tense standoff ensued between protesters and the police. Suddenly, there was a downpour of rain and most of the cops and counter-protesters took off running while the protesters stayed in place, cheering on the rain. 

The storm washed away the bloody handprints, but the bicycle cops remained to guard the statue and the body bags laying at its base. The crowd eventually convinced the cops to let them remove the body bags to avoid littering in the park.

“They are full of fear,” said FIREE member Stuart Flores, explaining why the cops were guarding the statue. 

Flores recently had charges dropped by State Attorney Andrew Warren, much to the chagrin of Tampa’s Police Chief Brian Dugan. He was arrested in June after being hit by a violent driver during a Black Lives Matter protest. Shortly after he was arrested, Tampa police were seen guarding the Christopher Columbus statue 24 hours a day, but refused to pursue the driver who hit Flores and others. 

The event ended with an uplifting flute song being played as the crowd clapped along and then dispersed. As protesters walked away, the bicycle police left. But one of the officers remained, using his sleeve to remove the last remnants of fake blood from the Columbus statue. —Justin Garcia

10/11/2020 | Photos by Dave Decker