I’m an Italian American, and Trump is Full of Shit about Columbus Day

On October 9th White House issued a proclamation upholding Columbus Day as a national holiday, as part of an ongoing effort to protect the whitewashing of American history and deny the existence of systemic white supremacy.

In recent years, indigenous activists and allies have pushed municipalities to rename Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day in acknowledgment of the genocide perpetrated by the so-called “Discoverer of the New World”. The proclamation is a sad attempt to bolster a false history and reframe these efforts as part of some imaginary war against America being waged by “radical activists.”

Despite this pathetic dog whistle, in a way he is correct. The word “radical” comes from the Latin word meaning ‘forming the root’ or ‘inherent’—in other words, radicals simply seek to “get to the root” of the issue.

In stark contrast, Trump seeks to obfuscate the truth. His political power is based on the defense of the American mythology that obscures the truth of our dark history. Like the WWE “professional” wrestling events Trump participated in, it is pure simulacra.

In the Columbus Day proclamation, the White House stated that,

“For Italian Americans, Christopher Columbus represents one of the first of many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history…..Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister.”

Every Italian American should denounce this statement as yet another blatant attempt on behalf of the Trump administration to be the standard-bearers of institutional white supremacy.

Today, the United States benefits from the warmth and generosity of nearly 17 million Italian Americans, whose love of family and country strengthen the fabric of our Nation. For our beautiful Italian American communities — and Americans of every background –Columbus remains a legendary figure.

This obvious attempt to pander is an affront to Italian Americans, is founded on the assumption that our sense of pride is so fragile that we couldn’t handle the truth. It goes beyond that to defend and laud Columbus, for his legacy of destructive colonization.

Should Germans be proud of Hitler’s contribution to shaping Europe?

Should Belgians be proud of King Leopold’s legacy in Africa?

Columbus and his men were the first Europeans to commit horrendous atrocities against America’s indigenous people and had only two goals for his expeditions to the “New World”— to find gold and slaves.

In 1980, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” brought to light the writings of a young priest named Bartolome de las Casas, who documented the atrocities of Columbus and his men.

While in Haiti, Columbus ordered all Natives 14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months, and if they did not collect enough, he would torture them and have their hands cut off.

Las Casas reported that the Spaniards,

“thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades…two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”

The priest also wrote,

“I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see….Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…”

Instead of reconciling with America’s dark past, Trump would have us maintain the lie. This is but one more instance in the president’s assault on indigenous people.

One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was signing the executive order to greenlight the Dakota Access Pipeline—despite the mythic struggle by the Standing Rock Sioux and 500 tribes that converged upon North Dakota for over nine months to protect their water supply.

I was there. The violence that unarmed water protectors experienced at the hands of local sheriffs and mercenaries hired by the oil companies was unprecedented since perhaps the MLK’s march to Selma. Trump made it a priority to push through the pipeline which resulted in military police raiding the frontline camps to evict the tribes from their own land.

In addition to this, native tribes had also been fighting for the protection of Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah for years. Bears Ears is sacred to the Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and other tribes for over 100,000 burials and sacred places. Trump illegally removed the protections covering one million acres that were instituted under the Obama administration and opened up oil and gas bidding for 85% of the land.

Even during a 2017 ceremony honoring Native American veterans, Trump referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”

Trump’s racist rhetoric goes back to the 1990’s, when the Native Americans casino industry posed a threat to his gambling empire.

Trump’s proclamation comes in the wake of an executive order the administration issued just weeks ago banning anti-racist training based on critical race theory. The 1619 project sought to examine the impact of slavery and place the contributions of black Americans at the center of the national narrative.

The project’s creator Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her essay that would become 1619 Project.

Trump issued an executive order to stonewall the project.

It has been clear that Trump is sending a message that he is the defender of the hegemony of White America and the status quo. He has sent the message time and time again, just as he did after the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally and in the recent debate when he refused to denounced white supremacist groups.

Columbus is an enduring symbol of genocide.

Trump’s proclamation goes on to say,

“This June, I signed an Executive Order to ensure that any person or group destroying or vandalizing a Federal monument, memorial, or statue is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

As an Italian American, I am proud to stand in solidarity with our Native American relatives who have endured unimaginable suffering for 500 years since Europeans first arrived on their shores. In 2017, I was part of the indigenous lead organizing efforts of the California Poor Peoples Campaign to shut down the Sacramento State Capitol building rotunda, where Columbus remains an honored symbol.

It is time not only for Italian Americans, but all Americans to finally abandon the name and image of Columbus and all symbols of systemic racism. We have the strength of spirit to face the truth, and no Mr. President, we don’t need you to defend our cultural heritage. I do not claim Columbus as part of my cultural heritage any more than Germans would claim Hitler.

For thousands of years, the Italian people have been at the vanguard of arts and sciences—from the marvels of Rome, to Galileo, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance, and do not need you to condescend to us with false heroes.

So let us all celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day and let the truth have its day.

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Thanks for reading!

Jay Ponti is a grassroots political organizer and has participated in efforts from Occupy to Standing Rock. He was the co-creator of #BankExit, the campaign which ignited billions in fossil fuel divestments. He has masterminded direct actions with Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, and other luminaries, which received international media attention.

Jay was a strategist for the 2017 California Poor People’s campaign that coordinated simultaneous actions occupying capitol buildings in 35 states where over 2500 people were arrested to stand for climate justice, criminal justice, health care as a human right, undocumented rights, homeless rights, and many other critical issues facing our nation.

To download a free chapter on direct action from his upcoming book “The Political Revolutionary’s Handbook, click here.

For free access to 30 hours of training content from some of the most effective activists on the planet as part of our Be The Revolution: How to Create Vision, Strategies & Solidarity for Sustainable Social Movements online summit, click here