Challenging Columbus Day in Columbus

October 26, 2015

Rachel Reiser and Haley Swenson report on a protest for Native lives in Ohio's capital city--and speak out for the importance of solidarity in fighting oppression.

ON OCTOBER 12--"Columbus Day," as it is known and celebrated around the country--the imposing 20-foot-statue of Christopher Columbus outside the City Hall in Columbus, Ohio, became a lightning rod in the country's growing anti-racist struggle.

Beside a single celebratory wreath, presumably placed there by a city employee, were dozens of activist signs, the biggest of which read, "Columbus was a terrorist." That night, around 150 people rallied at the statue to demand that it come down and that the city of Columbus change its name--and to declare that "Native lives matter!"

The protesters then began a three-mile march to the Ohio State University (OSU) campus, where they were joined by other students for a candlelight vigil, during which the names of Native people killed by police were read aloud.

Madison Eagle, an organizer of the event, who identifies as Shawnee and Cherokee, explained the resonance of this struggle to end Columbus Day in a city that is named for Christopher Columbus and that proudly celebrates that connection to early colonialism:

Demonstrators protest Columbus Day in Ohio's state capital
Demonstrators protest Columbus Day in Ohio's state capital (Columbus AboveGround)

It's very exhausting as a Native woman. I have to walk past the City Hall Columbus statue every day to go to work. It's exhausting to have to look at these oppressive images and to write on my address the name of someone who tried to make sure I wasn't born, who tried to wipe out my people.

THIS PROTEST was the first of its kind in Columbus, but nationally it is not an anomaly. In recent years, Native activists and those in solidarity have organized across the country to declare their grievances against the holiday. Since 2014, 10 U.S. cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day--seven of them passing a vote this year. What has sparked this new momentum for change?

A broader Indigenous peoples' movement has been on the rise in the Americas over the past few years. While this recent upsurge has been made possible by various Native activists and organizations, Idle No More stands at the center of this recent activity.

Founded in 2012 in Canada, Idle No More has been central in various struggles throughout North America, including the movement to halt the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the movement to change the racist name of the Washington, D.C., football team.

These indigenous voices have surfaced in the midst of changes to the larger political context. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has galvanized a shifting consciousness over racial injustice, and its boldness has paved the way for other oppressed groups to rise up.

BLM serves as an example for and harbinger of a stronger Native movement. The group Native Lives Matter in Minnesota, which also endorsed the anti-Columbus Day rally in Ohio, is but one example of the often explicit connections that activists are making between the two.

The rally in Columbus reflected a growing trend of activism directed at dismantling continued celebrations of colonization and conquest across the United States. This comes alongside a larger concern with fighting racism and the battle over symbols of the racist foundations of the U.S.--exemplified by the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists to remove those symbols celebrating the "heritage" of the Confederacy.

Such connections were made explicitly by those gathered around the Columbus statue on October 12. As protester Will Myers explained:

To me, it seems like a very strong parallel to taking down the Confederate flag. Because you can take down the Confederate flag, and no systemic racism changes at all, but I think that this really seems to be an event that's all about the education and consciousness. That someone can drive by and see this redefinition of public space--to see that wreath turned around and see "Columbus was a Terrorist" on a plaque--I think it's an educational experiment.

Indya Jackson, a member of the OSU Coalition for Black Lives, stated:

A lot of people have been there for the Black Lives Matter movement, so it's important for me to support not only Black people who are fighting oppression, but all peoples who are fighting oppression. So this is one way that I get to give back and show my support as a Black person who is invested in a movement for Black liberation. I get to show that it's not just about my liberation, but I want everybody else to be free, too.

HIGH SCHOOL student and member of the Sault Sainte Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians Lydia Green made a strategic case for having more solidarity among movements:

I feel like we all--Latinas, Indigenous and Black Lives Matter--if we all stick together and decide we're going to change the status quo, not just be separated out by color or race, we'll fix it all. That way, we'll all be stronger, we'll have a stronger voice, and we'll have more power. Native people are less than 1 percent of the population of the United States, and power is the key to change.

The reasons for a shared struggle between Native activists and Black activists, however, are not just strategic. They have a material basis in the history of these oppressions themselves. It is the shared history of oppression by the exact same forces and under the same auspices--the early development of capitalism--that lays the basis for that solidarity.

As the radical historian Howard Zinn argues in the first chapter of his People's History of the United States:

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold? He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic--the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round, and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.

After his first venture to the Americas, Columbus reported back to his gold-seeking benefactors about the potential he saw to extract resources, both gold and labor, from the land he had discovered. Zinn writes: "Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend."

As Zinn argues, the genocide against the Native population in the Americas was committed only after the Indigenous population was able to resist enslavement and had proven to be uncooperative in satiating their conqueror's thirst for gold and free labor: "Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to exterminate them."

As some organizers pointed out at the Native Lives Matter event, and historians of slavery in the Americas have long argued, the system that would dominate the world included the systematic enslavement and oppression of Africans. It was the need to justify the imposition of this system of enslaving Africans that prompted the elaboration of an increasingly complex theory of racial difference and racism. In Racecraft, scholars Barbara Fields and Karen Fields argue that:

People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed. Africans and their descendants might be, to the eyes of the English, heathen in religion, outlandish in nationality, and weird in appearance. But that did not add up to an ideology of racial inferiority until...the incorporation of Africans and their descendants into a polity and society in which they lacked rights that others not only took for granted, but claimed as a matter of self-evident natural law...When self-evident laws of nature guarantee freedom, only equally self-evident laws of equally self-evident nature can account for its denial.

As the system of enslavement and expansion of colonially controlled territory in the Americas developed, so, too, did the sense that Native and Black populations fought different struggles. But the perceived differences between racism toward Native people and racism toward Black people are an intended product of the divisive ideologies themselves.

The U.S. ruling class benefits not only from the erasure of Native history and the vast and inexplicable violence of colonization, and from the obscuring of the brutality of slavery, and the systematic production of anti-Black racism to justify it, but from the obscuring of their shared origins in a European race for land, natural resources, and profit.

TODAY, THE struggles of Black and Native peoples in the U.S. remain linked through confrontations with the same racist institutions and policies. For example, though the reservation system and the history of anti-Black racism in U.S. housing policy have often geographically separated these two racially oppressed people, the state represses them in much the same way, through the brutality of the police and through mass incarceration.

Though the BLM movement has brought with it widespread recognition of the disproportionate amount of police violence Black individuals face, less is known about the impact on Native individuals.

Speakers at the October 12 protest noted, for instance, that Native people are killed at a greater rate than any other racial group. According to the aptly named report, Native Lives Matter, published by the Lakota People's Law Project, "Native American men are admitted to prison at four times the rate of white men and Native women at sixfold the rate of white women." The report also notes that, "More commonly than any other ethnic group, Native Americans suffer the two most severe punishments that juvenile justice can offer, out-of-home placements and a transfer to the adult system."

At the anti-Columbus Day rally in Columbus, protesters alternated between chants of "Black lives matter" and "Native lives matter," and also included a chant that addressed police brutality explicitly: "No justice, no peace, no racist police!"

Native and Black communities' liberation lies in confronting the same system. For socialists, our task is not only to support and participate in movements against all forms of oppression, but to draw the connections between them.

If solidarity remains a moral concept, built on shifting positions of allies and oppressed, depending on whose demonstration these diverse racial groups happen to be at on a given day, rather than a way to describe the ways in which different oppressed groups actually share a mutual stake in dismantling the same systems, then accusations of appropriation will continue to appear, even while more promising connections are made on the ground.

Because it is under the rising tide of capitalism that all working people are drowning, solidarity is the only way to win.

Further Reading

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