Mayor Joseph Polisena has elaborated on comments he made to WPRO radio host Gene Valicenti last week regarding recent vandalism to the Christopher Columbus statue in Providence, calling the culprits “cowards” who were “going after the Italo-American culture.”
Polisena went farther during an interview with the Sun Rise on Monday, calling out two Providence City Council members by name – Ward 12’s Kat Kerwin and Ward 13’s Rachel Miller – for their comments on the matter.
On this past Columbus Day, Oct. 14, the statue was defaced with red paint and a sign reading, “Stop celebrating genocide.” There has been a growing push across the country in recent years to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day in an effort to recognize those driven from their land by settlers.
Kerwin tweeted the same day that “we live on stolen land” and “celebrating Columbus is celebrating colonization.” She told WPRO last month that she stood with the vandals, and that they were “creating a really healthy dialogue in Providence.”
When a seven-member committee was announced to look into memorials throughout the capital city, Miller told the Providence Journal: “History for a long time has been written from a certain perspective, and that perspective has been the victors.” She also said Columbus was “in many ways a perpetrator of genocide.”
Polisena said he took exception to their stances, adding that he thought it reflected an “inherent hatred of Italo-Americans.” Requests for comment from Kerwin and Miller were not returned before press time.
“I guess I started a firestorm because I said maybe Italo-Americans throughout the state should boycott the Providence restaurants and the shows and the malls,” Polisena said. “If it was a fringe group, it’d be no issue, but there are two elected officials that condone destroying public property.”
The mayor also went as far to criticize Brown University for recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day in 2016, despite the Brown family’s acknowledged ties to the transatlantic slave trade. He said the university is “talking out of both sides of its mouth.”
“They named Brown University after the Browns, we know what they did,” Polisena said. “They were slave traders. Did they change the name? So, as long as we don’t go back to those days, if you get rid of all of these statues and monuments – they all did bad, I’m sure – if you do that, then we’ll never know our history, never know where they came from, and we won’t know where we’re going in the future and we don’t want to go back to that.”
Polisena doubled down when asked if he saw an issue with building a monument to Columbus’ legacy, to which he replied, “No, not at all.” He did not go into detail, but said Columbus “did some good things” and that it would be “no different than if someone damaged a statue from another nationality or another race.”
“If I went after the Martin Luther King statues – which, I idolize Dr. King, I think he did a great job – but if I did that, then technically I’m going after the African-Americans because obviously he represents them in a particular way where, as I said, Christopher Columbus had some bad points but he had some good points,” Polisena said.
As he mentioned during his radio appearance, Polisena said he would happily purchase the statue – even if he had to use his own campaign funds – from Providence and relocate it to Johnston War Memorial Park.
He said the statue would be under 24/7 surveillance with a camera linked to the Johnston Police Department, just a few minutes down the road, in case it was vandalized again.
“We’re seconds away, so whoever did damage it would obviously probably be caught,” Polisena said. “We don’t have any council members or senators or reps or School Committee members who would condone damaging it, like they do in Providence.”
Polisena continued to harp on what he called “inherent hatred” – a phrase he used four times during the interview – and repeated that elected officials should not condone damaging property.
“If someone went by and threw a brick through that Kat whatever-her-name-is’s window, should I condone it and say, ‘Good! They got her.’ No, of course not,” he said. “You’re damaging someone’s property.”
He also noted he has no ill will toward Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, whom he called a friend, saying he could “make his life easier” by taking the statue to Providence.
He did, however, criticize the creation of a committee to study monuments and memorials throughout the city as a stall tactic.
“Whenever you want to stall something, when I was in the General Assembly, you’d set up a committee,” Polisena said. “When you have elected officials condoning damaging – whether it was the Christopher Columbus statue or any other statue – you’re duly elected. Obviously you’re supposed to uphold the laws and constitution of not only the country but the state and also the city or town in which you serve. I think it gives Providence a black eye.”