As protesters across the United States continue to call for the removal of Confederate monuments in the aftermath of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., anti-fascist protesters in Chicago are now demanding a monument gifted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini be taken down.
About 50 protesters, some of whom traveled from Rockford and Indiana, gathered around the Balbo monument in Burnham Park, where they railed against city officials for allowing a greenish breccia column to stand as a tribute to a fascist regime.
The monument is an ancient Roman pillar seated atop a large stone base that reads, in part: “Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini presents to Chicago” this commemoration of a flight by Balbo “in the 11th year of the Fascist Era.”
It was gifted by Mussolini in 1934 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Gen. Italo Balbo leading an armada of Italian planes on a trans-Atlantic flight from Rome to Chicago for the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Chicago’s formerly named 7th Street was also renamed Balbo Drive for him.
John Beacham, a coordinator with Answer Chicago and leader of Wednesday’s protest, said the organization has started an online petition requesting the monument’s removal and the renaming of the downtown street for celebrated Chicago journalist Ida B. Wells. The petition had garnered nearly 300 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.
“These monuments remaining is part of reason why, in 2017, we’re seeing another resurgence in racism and white supremacy,” Beacham said. “If people don’t come together to call for zero tolerance against white supremacy, the threat will continue to grow.”
Wednesday evening, a dozen Chicago police officers on bikes stood guard behind a waist-high fence around the monument and two horse-mounted officers kept watch from roughly 100 feet away as the group of protesters held signs, including some that read, “From Chicago to the White House, shut down white supremacy!”
A trio of protesters with megaphones led the group in chants such as, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Fascist monuments have got to go!”
“We’re standing here in front of a monument,” activist Andy Thayer said. “But it’s much more than just a monument, as the events from Charlottesville should drive home to us very, very clearly.”
Thayer continued, “When you wear a sheet over your head, when you give a ‘Sieg Heil!’ when you threaten to murder whole groups of people … you are not just giving … free speech.”
The rally, which began with about 20 people and grew to about 50 protesters, transformed into a march to what organizers called a “second racist statue,” this one belonging to Christopher Columbus, who they charged with slaughtering indigenous people on his expedition to America.
A score of officers on bikes rushed up a hill leading to the steps of that monument, forming a semicircle perimeter. Protesters chided police efforts to keep them away from the towering memorial. The crowd dispersed shortly after.
Wednesday’s demonstration joins a groundswell of opposition throughout the nation to monuments that some say venerate racist ideologies.
Mussolini’s disrepute as the iron-fisted dictator who aligned Italy with Nazi Germany by adopting anti-Jewish policies is well documented. Balbo helped propel Mussolini to power with his military might, brutally crushing socialist and communist rebellion along the way. But some say Balbo, who opposed some of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws, shouldn’t be painted with the same brush as the dictator.
In an editorial letter to the Tribune, some officials representing Italian-American associations in Chicago spoke out against the dismantling of the Balbo monument.
“Italo Balbo was never an enemy of the United States,” read the letter, published Monday. “He was an inspiration to Italian-Americans and to those in aviation. Balbo did the right thing: Opposed Mussolini in his darkest time.”
Beacham, however, said Balbo’s service as Mussolini’s right hand, including leading the bombing of unarmed Africans in Ethiopia, nixes any aviation legacy he leaves behind.
“In our opinion, this is not only a monument from a fascist,” Beacham said about Mussolini, “it’s a monument to fascism.”
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, and Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, will propose removing the monument and renaming the downtown street at a City Council meeting in September.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to take a position on the fate of the Balbo monument Wednesday when asked about the evening protest, saying only that he had spoken to aldermen and they would “work through it as a City Council.”
Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne contributed.
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