In Chicago’s Grant Park, a circular plaza is enclosed by a chain link fence, protecting a tall pedestal wrapped in plastic. This is what remains of the Christopher Columbus Memorial, installed in 1933 and significantly altered in the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of a protest calling to defund the Chicago Police Department. The primary component of the memorial, a heroic bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, has been removed.
A week before the statue was separated from its pedestal, protesters had rallied on South Columbus Drive to support the Black Lives Matter movement and in calls to defund the police. The rally ended at the site of the Christopher Columbus memorial, which had been tagged with anti-police graffiti and splatters of paint in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin. As protesters rushed the statue, the Chicago Tribune reported, Chicago police officers were hit with fireworks and cans.1 They responded by striking protesters with batons. Meanwhile, a rope had been secured around the bronze statue while a group attempted to pull the statue from its base, chanting “Columbus was a murderer. Columbus was a thief.” As the protesters stood down and the crowd dispersed, the monument remained intact, but was covered with anti-police graffiti. The Chicago Police Department stated later that attacks on officers were coordinated, while protesters asserted that the police had used excessive force.
After the protest, the statue and its pedestal were wrapped in plastic and a chain link fence was installed around it. The City of Chicago removed the statue overnight, and it was taken to an undisclosed location for storage. Police presence around the Columbus Memorial continued even after the statue had been removed—an action that occurred not because its history had been challenged, but as a “public safety measure,” with the Chicago Park District website stating that the Columbus statue had been “temporarily removed.” “This is a difficult moment in our history. I know Chicagoans are frustrated and impatient for change,” said then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement to the press after the July 17, 2020, rally.2, 3
History, like the monuments and memorials that commemorate it, takes on new meaning over time. The Christopher Columbus Memorial, designed by Milan-born artist Carlo Brioschi and unveiled as a part of “Italian Day” festivities at the Century of Progress International Exhibition of 1933, remained a place where commemorations would begin, and where organizations like the Knights of Columbus would gather before parades. With public acknowledgement of Christopher Columbus’s problematic history growing, opinions changed over the last several decades regarding the heroics of some of America’s historic figures, as more nuanced understanding of race and privilege entered the mainstream.
As southern cities like New Orleans began the removal of their Confederate monuments in 2017, Chicago began conversations about its own inventory of monuments and place names. The murder of George Floyd broadly changed America’s perception of the ability for public institutions to serve their constituents equally, from police departments to monuments on public grounds, and motivated people to participate in rallies and to exercise their First Amendment rights. Direct actions, like the one that motivated the activists to toss the rope over the statue of Christopher Columbus in an attempt to pull it down, are often considered extreme in the moment of time in which they occur but become bellwethers within social movements over time.
Following the removal of the Grant Park Columbus statue, as well as a second within Arroyo Park in Little Italy, and a third in a public plaza in South Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot created an advisory committee to evaluate public monuments across Chicago. The Chicago Monuments Project was tasked to create a framework for the identification and treatment of a group of forty-one monuments determined to be representative of outdated perspectives or harm, like the history of exploitation and genocide that monuments to Christopher Columbus have come to represent to the public—be that recontextualization or removal—and a path forward for the development of new monuments.
When the advisory committee released a report in August 2022 calling for the removal of a total of thirteen monuments, including the permanent removal of the three Columbus statues in storage, Mayor Lightfoot declined to endorse the report and struck an obstinate tone regarding the committee’s recommendations, while embracing a new “tough on crime” rhetoric that was missing from her campaign messaging and the beginning of her tenure as mayor. The Columbus Memorial’s pedestal in Grant Park remains wrapped in plastic and surrounded by a chain link fence, currently serving as a memorial of its own, albeit temporarily, to the struggle for a resolution.
The public’s perception of Christopher Columbus has shifted from “discoverer of America” to Columbus as a representative of colonization and genocide on which America was founded. Columbus monuments across the country have been removed by municipalities, destroyed, altered, or even decapitated by the hands of citizens. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Columbus was torn down, covered in spray paint and set on fire before ultimately being thrown in a lake inside Byrd Park.4 After years of working to get the statue of Columbus at the Minnesota State Capital removed, a group of Indigenous activists took matters into their own hands, toppling the statue while State Troopers looked on.5 In Boston, a marble statue of Christopher Columbus in Christopher Columbus Park was beheaded by activists, with the body of the statue removed by the city hours later.6 “There has been significant adverse public reaction to these artworks, which is likely to continue if the artworks were reinstalled,” the final report of the Chicago Monuments Project stated.7 Included in the Chicago Monuments Project is a recommendation that the site of the Columbus Memorial could be redeveloped without replacing the statue, presenting “opportunities to bring communities together.”
The events of the rally on July 17, 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd, which called for a direct action—defunding the police—are now embedded in the narrative of the Columbus Memorial. This presents an opportunity to convey both the local reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and changing ideas around the perception of law enforcement, all within an existing monument that has grown to symbolize the genesis of ideologies that constructed race and modern-day law enforcement. While this new narrative doesn’t provide a direct path forward for the physical treatment of the Columbus Memorial, a new monument to the survivors of police torture could provide guidance for how existing monuments can address restorative justice or new perspectives on acknowledging and repairing harm.
From 1972 to 1991, Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge subjected over one hundred and twenty Chicagoans in police custody—all people of color—to racially motivated torture in an effort to force confessions to crimes they did not commit. After providing false confessions, survivors of this torture spent years, and in some cases decades, in jail. Founded in 2011, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials began inviting people to contribute designs for a speculative memorial for the Burge torture survivors. The respondents represented a broad range of walks of life and approaches, and seventy of the speculative memorials were displayed at the School of the Art Institute in 2012. As a part of that exhibit, a reparations ordinance was drafted and filed in City Council in 2013. In 2015, the City of Chicago became the first municipality to provide reparations for police violence via the Reparations for Burge Torture Victims Ordinance and resolution. The groundbreaking ordinance included a series of demands, including $5.5 million in financial compensation for torture survivors and their families, a formal apology from then Mayor Rahm Emanuel, waived tuition to City Colleges, a mandatory Chicago Public Schools curriculum to educate students about police torture, and the creation of a permanent public memorial to survivors.
“The memorial has been the hardest part of the reparations legislation to implement,” said Joey Mogul, cofounder of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, who has worked over multiple mayoral administrations to get the City of Chicago to commit to building a permanent memorial, viewing a partnership with the city and the use of municipal funds and agencies as a part of the process of restorative justice.
In 2017, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials worked with Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago to put out a Request for Proposals for the memorial that was promised as a part of the reparations legislation. A jury selected artist Patricia Nguyen and architectural designer John Lee’s submission “Breath, Form and Freedom.”
The Chicago Monuments Project separated public engagement feedback into two categories: what should be done with existing monuments and what form new monuments should take. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial was identified as a new monument that could assist in the sharing of underrepresented stories, and the beginning of community healing.
On June 19, 2023, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) announced that the City of Chicago would receive $6.8 million from the Mellon Foundation to support the Chicago Monuments Project, including addressing the current state of monuments like Grant Park’s Columbus Memorial, and to allow the implementation of new monuments—including the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial. The funding, alongside support from city agencies and Mayor Brandon Johnson, will see the possible groundbreaking of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial in 2024, to be located in the 20th Ward on the South Side of Chicago. Proposed to accompany the memorial is the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which will assist survivors of police torture and their families through programs and support services.
Patricia Nguyen worked with torture survivors and their families to inform the design and intent of the memorial. The memorial’s spiraling form was inspired by protest formations that place people of color at the center with white allies surrounding them. “I really wanted to convey resistance, protest, and care through the spiral formation.” A timeline element came out of survivors talking about their stories not being believed. “They wanted their stories to feel true,” Nguyen continued. Survivors wanted a design that encouraged gathering and healing, but also could serve to educate a broad audience.
In naming the memorial, Nguyen thought about the techniques that Burge had used on his victims and what it means to breathe against the conditions of the violence of the state. “I thought about suffocation and breath—the question of breath was thinking about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, which came after the memorial was designed, but took on new meaning. How do we breathe life into a new memorial?”
Joey Mogul hopes that the memorial will inspire others to resist and seek redress, as well as support other reparations movements. “The memorial is both a memorial to the survivors and an inscription of this racist state violence, while also lifting the organizing done by survivors who refused to take no for an answer. But the most important thing was to include the voices of the directly impacted. That’s where you’ll get the most healing attributes. It is the process—not just the product.” The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial Foundation has been founded to facilitate the creation of the memorial.
Jon Burge was fired from the Chicago police department in 1993, largely due to the efforts of activists who worked to both overturn the wrongful convictions and to bring Burge as an individual to justice. He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2010, and served four years in federal prison, where he was allowed to continue to collect a police pension. Like Christopher Columbus, Jon Burge used his power and position to exploit, torture, and brutalize—Burge to coerce confessions in order to solve police cases, and Columbus to build colonial wealth and power. Both of these men built a foundation of harm nearly five hundred years apart that is now colliding in how the histories of those they harmed may finally be told.
Monuments and memorials always exist within the zeitgeist of the current moment—a moment that sometimes becomes a radically different context compared to the one in which they were designed and constructed. Like the Columbus Memorial, the context of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial will also continue to change as the results of the broadly reaching and influential reparations package, in particular the continued education of the public on the brutality of state sponsored violence, enters and informs our collective history.
The author would like to thank Joey Mogul and Patricia Nguyen for their interviews and assistance.