Johnston resident and Italian-American Raena Calisi stood at the juncture of the tiny bridge and the small island in the center of the pond in War Memorial Park.
“He was an explorer!” She yelled, her voice matching her opponent’s.
A few feet away, protester and fellow Italian-American Joseph Gizzarelli of Providence chanted, “Murder! Genocide! Is this Italian pride?”
Calisi shouted back. “He was an explorer!”
“Murderer!” Gizzarelli screamed his reply.
“Rapist!” Gizzarelli’s younger sister Sarah, the event’s only other protester, added her voice. “You’re bringing your children to celebrate a rapist and a murderer!” Uniformed Johnston Police officers faced the pair of protesters. The Columbus Day unveiling of Johnston’s new Christopher Columbus statue — Providence’s loss — was about to begin.
Police peacefully backed the protesters up, back over the bridge. There they stood, at the bottlenecked entrance to the tiny fully-occupied island. They continued their Columbus assault, accusing each entrant to the island of supporting genocide, their shouts and slogans rivaling the event speakers and interacting with every passerby possible.
The Gizzarelli siblings were loud. But the residents gathered in the park also knew how to yell. One-by-one challengers stepped up to the sign-holding disruptors.
“You are not an Italian,” Alan Conca yelled back at the elder Gizzarelli. “You’re a communist!”
The word “communist” was a verbal hand grenade tossed at the pair of vocal objectors by more than one passing Columbus celebrant. There were lots of references to “woke” ideology, former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and war brewing in Israel.
Food trucks packed the park. Access to Memorial Drive was backed up onto Hartford Avenue. By 10:45 a.m. Monday, Johnston Police at the park advised new arrivals to park at the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School.
Dose of History
Dr. Patrick T. Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island, addressed the crowd packed like sardines on the tiny dry patch of land.
“It is symbolic that Johnston has placed Columbus on a small island securely surrounded by water,” Conley told the crowd. “On Oct. 12, 1492, this intrepid navigator made his first landing on a small Bahamian Island, which he named San Salvador — or Holy Savior after Jesus — in gratitude for his small fleet’s safe journey across the Atlantic Ocean.”
The statue unveiled Monday in Johnston was removed from its Providence pedestal in 2020 and locked away in storage.
The 130-year-old likeness of Columbus was sculpted in the 1890s by the same French artist who sculpted the Statue of Liberty, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. The original artwork was crafted in sterling silver and eventually melted down. A bronze facsimile of the statue was cast and erected in Columbus Park on Elmwood Avenue in Providence, where stood for more than a century until it was removed in 2020.
Vandals and protesters frequented Columbus’s Providence home. As a wave of controversial monuments fell across the nation, the Ocean State’s capital city opted to uninstall the statue.
Former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. bought it for $50,000 from the city and kept it in storage. He eventually offered it to Johnston, and earlier this year, newly inaugurated Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. announced its new home in Memorial Park and the planned Columbus Day celebration.
Indigenous Vs. Italians
Long-running arguments over Columbus have been broiling in states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where progressive lawmakers and indigenous rights activists have recommended replacing the Columbus Day holiday with an Indigenous People’s Day.
“History is history, and we cannot change the past,” said Johnston State Rep. Deb Fellela. “Nor should we try. We can only try to make things better for our communities we live in today. There is room to honor both days, Columbus Day and Indigenous People Day.”
Ocean State critics of the suggested holiday name change argue that the switch is divisive and pits Rhode Islanders of Italian ancestry versus supporters of Native American causes and the continent’s indigenous descendants.
“I have zero issue with people wanting to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day,” Polisena wrote via email recently. “My problem is the either/or mentality of people want to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day and do away with Columbus Day and references to Columbus.”
Polisena has promised taxpayers that security for the new statue won’t cost taxpayers a dime. Joseph Gizzarelli loudly declared security at the monument could cost the town $2 million annually. Polisena disagrees.
A small fence has been constructed around the statue and a video feed ties directly to the Johnston Police Department. Transport and installation of the statue has been donated to the town, according to Polisena. The police, however, do work for the taxpayers. Only time will tell if the monument’s a drain on public services.
“Columbus Day is a day of pride for Italian-Americans, just as Indigenous People’s Day should be prideful for Native Americans,” Polisena explained. “Second, I refuse to judge people who lived over half a millennium ago based on modern-day standards. Standards change over time.”
Polisena traveled through time citing other historical atrocities.
“Societies, including Indigenous Americans, once enslaved one another, primarily those captured in battle,” Polisena said. “The Norse felt compelled to raid and plunder. Children sometimes ruled kingdoms and empires. People were executed in public. Young girls were married off, as children, to adult men. All of these things are either abhorrent, immoral or just plain creepy in today’s society, yet they occurred hundreds to thousands of years ago, because society wasn’t evolved. Therefore, people in those time periods should not be judged by the standards of today.”
House Minority Leader State Rep. Mike Chippendale, who represents District 40 (Coventry, Foster, Glocester), said earlier this week that the citizens have much bigger issues to tackle than the Columbus debate.
“I have been exercising much less concern about issues like this,” Chippendale said. “Many of my constituents can’t pay their electric bills, medical bills, tuitions, afford to buy a house, or feel comfortable that their children will be educated in school — virtuous indignation over the name of a day is not something I have the time, energy nor inclination to invest in.”
More Italian than Most
Johnston takes its Italian-American history seriously.
“My great grandfather, and namesake, Pasquale DeStasio, followed Columbus across the Atlantic in 1881 to settle in America,” Conley said from the lectern in the middle of the island, the Columbus statue at his back. “He chose the greater New Haven area where I was born. It ranks third, behind Fairfield, New Jersey (50.3%) and Johnston, Rhode Island (49.5%) as the most Italian-American place in the United States.”
The current mayor’s father, former Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Sr., held his grandson following the ceremony.
“This is a great day for the town — a great day for the citizens of Johnston,” said the elder Polisena. “You can't get rid of history just because you don't like it.”