A brick was symbolically hurled through the window of Black Baltimore on an October day in 1984.
That was when a Christopher Columbus statue was erected on the eastern end of the Inner Harbor waterfront.
Invited to dedicate it, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech extolling the Genoese navigator’s “vision” and his own bid for four more years as president.
Now, in September 2020, the perpetrators have returned to retrieve said brick.
“Columbus was a figure Italian immigrants could look up to when they moved to America to start a new life,” The Sun wrote last week about why Italian American Organizations United (IAOU) has requested that the city award them the chunks of marble broken when the statue was downed.
City residents had dragged Columbus from his perch last July 4 and tossed his likeness into the murky harbor waters.
It was a decisive rebuke of European colonialist idolatry and racism that persists on our shores to this day.
Now the city’s two top politicians, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Council President Brandon M. Scott, are poised – at next Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting – to hand over the broken pieces to the same Italian-American group that blighted the city’s waterfront with it.
Just four weeks before the statue was toppled, Scott defeated Young in the Democratic Party primary, which makes the man with the youthful grin the overwhelming favorite to become Baltimore’s next mayor in November’s general election.
Many are now waiting to see just how tall Scott will stand.
Black lives did not matter when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 or when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia colony in 1619.
And for the next 3½ centuries, they haven’t mattered much, either.
But in recent years, thanks in part to the growing availability of technology to capture police officers’ use of deadly force, demands for fundamental change have grown.
Stunned by the on-camera violent death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee to his neck on May 25, the nation began a reckoning with its past.
Popular demands to address the horrors of systemic racism and its symbols have reduced Confederate statues to rubble across the county.
But Baltimore finds itself stubbornly susceptible to winds shifting its citizens towards a greater racial divide, just as it was that day 36 years ago when a crowd of 4,000 in this Democratic stronghold cheered Reagan and held up signs that said “Moscow loves Mondale” and “Unborn babies love Reagan.”
This time under Donald Trump, the city and nation again grapple with divisive rhetoric in the re-election campaign of a Republican president espousing racist policies.
Devastating Era Begins
Ronald Reagan’s presidency, re-energized during his 1984 reelection, led to the accelerated decline of cities like Baltimore.
Even as the promised trickle-down economics failed to resuscitate communities hard hit by a recession, Reagan successfully campaigned to win Maryland in a sweep of 49 of 50 states with his promises to drastically curtail government social programs.
Standing next to the Carrara marble Columbus that October day, Reagan denounced the social safety net his administration was dismantling as “the failed welfare state” and “federal programs that create dependency.”
After thanking the man who introduced him, the current mayor, William Donald Schaefer, Reagan also recognized and thanked Police Commissioner Frank J. Battaglia.
Arguably, no one was more responsible for the Columbus monument than the cop who The Sun described as Baltimore’s “one-man Little Italy in a pinstriped suit” at the dedication of the Italian Cultural Center to be named after him.
The Original Stop-and-Frisk
While commander of the Southwestern District in 1958, Battaglia devised a policy of stopping and searching people without probable cause.
Under that strategy, officers were encouraged to stop young drivers and search their vehicles for guns or illegal items – without benefit of a warrant.
When defense attorneys challenged the practice, it was upheld by a federal judge, W. Calvin Chestnut, who praised the blatant Fourth Amendment abuse as “a wonderful way to detect and prevent crime.”
The “Battaglia Plan” was lauded by the city establishment, and Battaglia was honored as the Sunpapers‘ first “Policeman of the Year” in 1960.
The “Battaglia Plan” was lauded by the establishment and its namesake honored as the Sunpapers‘ first “Policeman of the Year.”
During the Baltimore riot of 1968, it was Battaglia who became the department’s Field Force Commander. “He kept order in Baltimore,” Schaefer liked to say.
Even though his warrantless-stop policy was ruled unconstitutional in the late 1970s, that didn’t stop the BPD from instituting other repressive policies like “stop-and-frisk” or allowing tactics like the “door pops” of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.
Those extra-legal, and sometimes criminal, activities have landed Baltimore in heap of trouble – costly lawsuits, federal corruption convictions, a scathing U.S. Justice Department report, and an era of mass incarceration that crippled multiple generations of Black Baltimore.
Don’t Give Back the Brick!
It is against this backdrop that the proposed return of the Columbus statue should be judged.
In the original 1985 agreement, the city agreed to accept the statue as a gift, keep up its maintenance and inform the donors of any plans to move it, taking the donor’s recommendation into consideration.
It appears that the city is under no obligation to return this symbol of oppression to the Italian community. It can destroy it, relocate it in a museum or another public space, or put it up for bid.
At present, the IAOU acknowledges that it has the city’s property, retrieved from the harbor, stored in a private warehouse. Whether the Board of Estimates will return the brick to the thrower remains to be seen.
How Scott handles the symbolism and substance of the statue’s fragmented remains will give us a clue about whether our “new generation” of city politicians can rise to this moment in American history or sink under the weight.
• Keesha Ha, a West Baltimore native, is a former journalist and professor of communications at Rowan College of South Jersey.
Previous Brew Coverage:
• Goodbye, Columbus (7/4/20)