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Why We Oppose Columbus Day FAQ

1. What's Wrong with Christopher Columbus?
2. Aren't these accounts of Columbus an exaggerated revision of history?
3. Wasn't Columbus just a product of his times? Is it not unfair to judge a 15th Century man by 21st Century standards?
4. But those events happened a long time ago. How could they possibly matter today?
5. What does this history of Columbus have to do with protesting the Columbus Day parade?
6. Doesn't the First Amendment protect the right of the Italian organizers to have their parade?
7. Scholarship: Columbus Should be Rejected as a National Hero

1. Question: What's Wrong with Christopher Columbus?

Answer: We've all been lied to about Columbus. Before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, he was a slave trader for the Portuguese, transporting West African people to Portugal to be sold as slaves. Columbus initiated the first Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Columbus, his brother, and his son all continued slave trading of indigenous peoples from the Americas to Europe and from Africa to the Caribbean. Under his administration as viceroy and governor of the Caribbean Islands, 8 million people were killed, making his "contribution" to history the first mass genocide of indigenous peoples. The Columbus legacy is steeped in blood, violence, and death. Public holidays celebrating Columbus not only teach children to honor a cruel and brutal man, they encourage people in this society to ignore, look away, and even support racist practices embedded in today's economic, political and judicial systems.

2. Question: Aren't these accounts of Columbus an exaggerated revision of history?

Answer: No. By conservative accounts based on Spanish surveys, the Taino numbered as many as 8 million in 1493. [Source: Cook and Woodrow, Essays in Population History, Vol. 1, Chapter VI, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, cited in Churchill].

During Columbus' tenure as "viceroy and governor" of the Caribbean Islands and the American mainland from 1493 until 1500, he instituted policies of slavery (encomienda) and the systematic murder and rape of the Taino population. Dominican priest, Bartolome de Las Casas was the first European historian in the Americas. He was an eyewitness and wrote in painful detail of the tortures he witnessed. In a survey conducted in 1496, he estimated that over 5 million people had been exterminated within the first three years of the Columbus rule. [Actual survey conducted in 1496 by Bartolome de Las Casas, cited in J.B. Thatcher, Christopher Columbus, Vol. 2 [Source: New York: Putnam Sons Publishers, 1903-1904), p. 348ff. cited in Churchill.] Later accounts that gloss over the horrors of the Columbus regime are the revisions of history.

By the time of Columbus' departure, only 100,000 Taino were left, and by 1542, only 200 were left. Within the entire Caribbean Islands, about 15 million indigenous people are estimated to have been exterminated within one generation of Columbus' arrival. This is genocide, the wholesale killing of an entire race of people. These policies, established here, laid the foundation for extermination policies that Europeans used to justify the elimination of over 100 million native people throughout the Western Hemisphere. By any standards those numbers describe a Holocaust. (go to top)

3. Question: Wasn't Columbus just a product of his times? Is it not unfair to judge a 15th Century man by 21st Century standards?

Answer: To view Columbus as violent and racist is not an imposition of 21st century morality. His own diaries reveal his brutality -- a brutality that offered no fair judgment to his victims. Bartolome de Las Casas began his days in the Americas as a beneficiary of the encomienda (slave-holding) system. However, as he watched the horror of human destruction caused as a result of Columbus' actions and decisions, as well as the actions of the soldiers under Columbus' command, De Las Casas repudiated the system. He described in vivid detail the massacre of the Indians, denounced Columbus, and published his findings in Europe in his History of the Indies.

The violence of Columbus' extermination actions was widely debated in theological and academic circles within Europe. European legal and moral principles tended to favor the rights of indigenous peoples to be free from unjustified invasion, murder and pillage by Europeans. Francisco de Vitoria, professor at the University of Salamanca in the early 1500s and often considered the father of modern international law, wrote extensively on the rights of indigenous peoples. Vitoria and others in Columbus' own lifetime rejected the view that popes and monarchs had the automatic right to enslave indigenous peoples and take their land. The rights of human beings were as much 15th Century issues then, as they are 21st Century issues today.

4. Question: But those events happened a long time ago. How could they possibly matter today?

Answer: Columbus' actions set the foundation for legal and social policies -- still used today in United States, Mexico, Canada, South America and in many countries around the world. These policies justify the theft and destruction of indigenous peoples' lands and knowledge by corporate and government interests. Media, films, judicial systems, educational systems, and other political and social institutions support this continued assault on the natural resources of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples today remain at the margins of technological society -- struggling to overcome the destruction of land, culture and language. In many ways all peoples on this planet are impacted. These attacks on indigenous peoples and their land and their knowledge contribute to the destruction of ecosystems and the erosion of human rights for all people.

5. Question: What does this history of Columbus have to do with protesting the Columbus Day parade?

Answer: From the actions and words of the parade organizers over the years, it is clear that the parade represents more than a celebration of Italian culture, or even of Columbus, the man. It is a glorification of the colonial tradition described above and the privileging of an Italian past that benefited and grew out of that process of subjugation. Moreover, in its celebration it is intended to serve as a reminder of that past, to convey that the genocide for which Columbus was personally responsible is an acceptable cost for the extension of western civilization. If the parade was truly intended to "celebrate" Italian heritage, why begin with Columbus? Why not simply call it the "Italian Heritage Parade?"

Surely, the organizers would draw a wider audience and reflect a broader and more accurate view of Italian culture. However, neither the title nor the actions of the organizers are accidental. Both are intended to convey what the parade organizers find valuable in their interpretation of the Italian American experience; namely, the legacy of racial superiority, conquest, and domination epitomized by Columbus. The Columbus parade is the ultimate opportunity for the parade organizers to champion the invasion of the America's, thereby avoiding any personal or collective responsibility for the genocide that began under Columbus, and that continues today. We can find nothing of value in cultural celebration that elevate the pride of one group by demeaning and disrespecting another. When we allow a parade in honor of Columbus to take place without objection, we are tacitly supporting those values that celebrate subjugation, and we are suggesting that such a parade represents all of our interests. In opposing the Columbus Day parade, we refuse to accept or enable those values and we maintain that our resources, time, and energy, are better invested in expressions of good will, mutual respect, and building collective dignity. (go to top)

6. Question: Doesn't the first amendment protect the right of the Italian organizers to have their parade?

Answer: To be clear, we support and defend the rights granted to all of us by virtue of the first amendment. We strongly affirm the right of all people to create a marketplace of ideas that stimulates and strengthens democracy.

However, we do not accept hate speech, and more specifically, the state-sponsored celebration of Columbus as a valid expression of this right. In particular, the first amendment cannot, and should not, be applied in a capricious or uncritical manner in all circumstances. Doing so overlooks the very real inequalities of power which surround us. These unequal positions of power affect our abilities to access, express, defend and assert our rights (such as the first amendment). What's more they affect the degree to which our expressions are heard, the authority they carry, and the manner in which they impact our society. For example, we would never accept the argument that a slave's actual right to object to slavery was ever equal to the slaveholder's verbal defense of slavery. Similarly, we would not accept that a woman in a hostile work environment possesses an equal ability to exercise free speech with the corporate CEO who is sexually harassing her. As such, it is erroneous to suggest that we all have equal access to the First Amendment.

An absolutist view of the First Amendment ignores the inequalities in political and social power that translates to an imbalance in the application and access of the first amendment. Over the years, we have accepted numerous restrictions on pure speech as a means to correct for the imbalance of power that can take place when the first amendment is arbitrarily applied. For example, we accept limitations on pure speech when it is used to abuse young children, we accept limitations on speech when it is used to threaten or incite danger, and we accept restrictions on pure speech when it is used to sexually or racially harass co-workers.

In addition, we no longer accept signs that read "Whites Only," because we know that the sign is not only about speech, but about the power that historically accompanied that message. In short, we've accepted these restrictions with the knowledge that unlimited pure speech coupled with unequal access to power ensures inevitable harm. One very important instance in which the U.S. played an instrumental role in the justifiable limitation of speech was the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal following World War II. Julius Streicher was tried, convicted, and executed after being prosecuted by Robert Jackson, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Streicher's crimes were considered so horrendous that they were termed "crimes against humanity." To first amendment absolutists, Streicher should have gone free, but Justice Jackson and the other members of the Tribunal decided that Streicher 's role as a Nazi propagandist - promoting, inciting, and supporting the extermination of Jews, gays, gypsies, and others- was not and should not be protected speech, even though it was pure speech. Subsequently, international law as reflected in the Genocide Convention, made the promotion, advocacy, or incitement to genocide an international crime. We believe that Columbus Day justifies, promotes, and extends genocidal sentiments and policies against indigenous peoples in the Americas and around the world.

Just as apartheid was denounced by the international community as an unacceptable ideology of racial superiority in South Africa, so should Columbus Day and Columbus celebrations be condemned as the advancement of racial supremacy because they celebrate the destruction of indigenous peoples. In addition, the speech we are discussing in the case of the Columbus Day parade constitutes a combination of pure speech, symbolic speech, and behavior. Because of the potential for harm in this type of speech (because it represents conduct combined with speech) this type of expression has always been subject to greater scrutiny. As such, we see no contradiction or undue burden in having the Columbus Day parade closely scrutinized. In fact, the Columbus Day parade or celebrations of the holiday warrant even closer inspection as they involve state sponsored actions. When the city and state involve themselves in condoning and protecting the parade they purport to act on behalf of all of us, and as such their actions take on greater authority.

Finally a blind application of the first amendment is ultimately problematic because it creates a conflict with other rights granted to us through the constitution. Specifically, the 14th amendment provides us with "equal protection under the law," and protection of our life, liberty, and property via due process, rights that ensure us freedom from hate speech and other types of harassment. While we don't suggest that one amendment be supplanted for another, we object to any conflict between these rights automatically being decided in favor of those in the dominating position. As such, we reject that claims to freedom of speech on behalf of the parade organizers should supercede our freedom to protest, our right to live free from harassment and intimidation, and the desire of people to create a mutually respectful community. (go to top)

7. Scholarship: Columbus Should be Rejected as a National Hero

"The policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492…one third were killed off between 1494 and 1496." (emphasis added)
 - Samuel Eliot Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (NY: Little, Brown and Co, 1942). pp 492-493

"The two leading researchers here, Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley have calculated the population decline [of the island of Hispaniola] after 1496,…with an estimate of the original island population of just under 8 million. [The population declined] from 8 million to 28,000 in just over twenty years. That…is a carnage of more than 99 percent, something we must call closer to a genocide." 
 - Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (NY: Plume Books, 1991). pp. 160-161.

"The Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indians]. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged, nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword could split a man in two or could cut off his head…They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags***They made some low, wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims, in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive."
 - Bartolome' de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (originally published in 1547) reprinted by Johns Hopkins Press, 1992. pp. 42-45. Las Casas was a Dominican priest, the first European historian in the Americas.

"Columbus proceeded to establish a slave trade with the inhabitants of Hispaniola. And this after he had declared time and time again that the Tainos were the kindest, most peaceful and generous people in the world…But now [Columbus] resorted to the monstrous expedient of sending hundreds of the wretched creatures overseas to the slave mart of Seville."
 - Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (see above), pp. 486-487.


©2004 Transform Columbus Day Alliance