“It’s good for our city,” said Providence City Councilor Katherine Kerwin (Ward 12). “I don’t know who did [the vandalism] but obviously they feel really strongly that what Rhode Island is continuing to do and what Providence is continuing to do by not joining with many states that have decided to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day is hurtful and it is damaging. And I stand with them.”
The pictures accompanying this piece were taken Thursday morning, three days after a south side statue of Christopher Columbus was spattered with red paint, an act of political speech and civil disobedience (and vandalism) symbolizing the blood of the indigenous people Columbus murdered, raped, mutilated and enslaved. As you can see, the statue, created by master sculptor Auguste Bartholdi in 1893, is fine.
Providence City Councilor Katherine Kerwin (Ward 12) went on WPRO to say that she supports the message and the actions of those who spattered the statue with paint.
“Do you support the vandalism of that statue, as your tweet seems to indicate?” asked Gene Valicenti.
“You know, I do,” said Kerwin. “And I think the statue should be removed… I think healthy civil disobedience is really good for our society…”
“Really?” asked Valicenti, all but clutching his pearls.
“It’s good for our city,” said Kerwin. “I don’t know who did [the vandalism] but obviously they feel really strongly that what Rhode Island is continuing to do and what Providence is continuing to do by not joining with many states that have decided to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day is hurtful and it is damaging. And I stand with them.”
Valicenti replied by subtly trying to cast Kerwin as too young to understand, before casting doubt on the historicity of Columbus’ crimes and outrages. He then attempted to minimize these crimes. Valicenti also tried to imply that Kerwin was being anti-Italian, rather than anti-genocide and anti-slavery, saying, “Maybe I’m not woke enough like the younger people but Columbus, if he did kill anybody, hasn’t done so in five hundred years. This is not quite life and death. It’s about vandalizing city property and states. Maybe it’s more about parades and sausage sandwiches than it is about anybody committing atrocities.”
Then, condescendingly, Valicenti went the paternalistic route, asking Kerwin, in a patronizing way, “Have you thought this through, and have you thought how it sounds to have a city councilwoman saying ‘I’m okay with damaging city property?'”
Kerwin defended her position admirably, even though Valicenti’s questions were never truly direct or fair. But Valicenti wasn’t done. He now made his most uninformed and bombastic comment:
“When you go out your door today and turn right and turn left, everything you see sprang from Columbus,” said Valicenti. “So to deny Columbus is to deny everything that sprang from him.”
When Kerwin pushed back on this obvious inanity, Valicenti backtracked, saying, “I didn’t have you on to talk about history” and quickly moved onto his original talking points.
City Councilor Nicholas Narducci (Ward 4) issued a press release going after Kerwin’s position. People might remember Narducci as a big supporter of Michael Earnheart, the Trump supporter endorsed by the Rhode Island Democratic Party against Representative Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence).
“It was alarming to hear a public official condoning an act of vandalism,” wrote Narducci. “An act of vandalism is not political discourse, it is not freedom of speech, and it is not a form of dissent. It is a crime.”
Two others with no sense of history, or an appreciation for the importance of civil disobedience, David Talan and William Ricci, Co-Chairs of the Providence Republican City Committee, called Kerwin an “extreme progressive” and claimed, ahistorically that, “Vandalism is never an acceptable expression of free speech.”
Here’s the thing that those so shocked about the vandalism of the Columbus statue haven’t realized: Everything illegal is not morally wrong, and everything morally wrong is not illegal. The law is not morality. Morality is not law.
All civil disobedience is technically crime. Dr Martin Luther King Jr spent time in jail, because he committed “crimes.” Helping escaped slaves was considered to be theft, and a crime. Burning the HMS Gaspee was a crime, as was the Boston Tea Party.
Arguably, all the “crimes” were in the service of a greater purpose, as was the vandalism of the Columbus statue. This is something Valicenti, Narducci, Talan and Ricci should know: Civil disobedience is a vital and important part of American history.
And it’s something Providence City Councilor Kerwin not only knows, but is brave enough to stand up for and defend.
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