After a series of high-profile killings of Black people at the hands of police officers, protesters across the country have taken to the streets, calling for defunding and abolishing police departments and for destroying statues commemorating Confederate soldiers and other oppressors.
Maryland is not immune.
On the 4th of July, in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, Baltimore protesters pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus, who came to the Americas in 1492 and enslaved indigenous peoples who had previously lived there. Then they submerged it in the harbor, despite pleas by Republican legislators for its protection.
But what’s followed has grown to be much bigger than just Columbus.
State and local politicians’ Twitter fingers were flying following weeks of on- and off-line debate about calls for dismantling oppressive institutions. And some lawmakers have gotten flack about their drive to dismantle what some consider oppressive relics.
Earlier this week, Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey (D) questioned protesters’ desire to remove the Columbus statue at the same time they’re allowing a Fraternal Order of Police statue to remain intact nearby. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has now stepped into that debate.
“I am disgusted by Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey (D)’s vile remarks about removing the public memorial saluting Baltimore’s fallen police officers, which was funded and championed by their family members,” Hogan said in a statement Thursday. “Though recent weeks have prompted a discussion about how we should remember controversial historic figures, there is nothing controversial about honoring heroes who have lost their lives protecting the rest of us.”
Dorsey told Maryland Matters in an email that his comment was misconstrued, but he wondered how debate over a 15th-century Italian explorer who was working for the Spanish crown reached such heights.
‘Glug glug glug’
On June 26, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) and Del. Nino Mangione (R-Baltimore County) held a news conference in front of Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus statue. On the corner of President Street and Eastern Avenue in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, they implored Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) to protect the Columbus monument in the name of Italian-American heritage.
“Vigilante groups cannot be permitted to pick and choose what stays and what goes,” Szeliga said in a statement issued late last month. “It is important to take a wholesale look at what these statutes and monuments represent and establish a judicious process for that review. Until this process can be established we are asking the Governor and the Mayor to protect these statutes and monuments from vandalism, destruction, and removal.”
The news conference came just days after Dorsey had introduced a bill in the City Council to replace an obelisk honoring Columbus at Herring Run with a memorial to victims of police brutality.
Mangione alleged counter-discrimination, calling Italian-Americans a “minority.”
Today I'm introducing a bill to rename the country's oldest Columbus monument – a monument to propaganda and revisionist history that holds up villains as a heroes – to instead be recognized as the Police Violence Victims Monument.
City Council Bill 20-0549 pic.twitter.com/LzWfgMmKLY
— Ryan Dorsey (@ElectRyanDorsey) June 22, 2020
“You do not heal racial wounds and injustices by targeting another historic minority,” he said in a statement. “You cannot use discrimination and prejudice to fight discrimination and prejudice.”
Despite the Republicans’ pleas, the statue was torn down by protesters on the 4th of July, dragged harborside and tossed in.
Szeliga took to Twitter, where she called the removal “shameful.”
— Kathy Szeliga (@KathyforMD) July 5, 2020
On Google Maps, the statue is marked as being located at the bottom of the harbor.
Saturday night, a parody Twitter account, @StatueColumbus, tweeted “Glug glug glug,” tagging a series of Baltimore-based media outlets.
The following day, Hogan condemned not just the protesters, but city officials — who, he said, need to “regain control.”
“While we welcome peaceful protests and constructive dialogue on whether and how to put certain monuments in context or move them to museum or storage through a legal process, lawlessness, vandalism, and destruction of public property are completely unacceptable,” Hogan said in a statement issued Sunday. “That is the antithesis of democracy and should be condemned by everyone, regardless of their politics. Baltimore City leaders need to regain control of their own streets and immediately start making them safer.”
The statue was fished out of the harbor on July 7 by Italian-American groups, an expedition that was organized in part by former state Sen. John Pica Jr., now an Annapolis lobbyist. On the same day, Mangione tweeted that he was pre-filing the Monument Protection Act of 2021, legislation which, if enacted, would fine individuals between $500 and $2,500 for damages to public monuments with the possibility of up to 10 years in jail.
Where does Dorsey fit in this saga?
It circles back to Christopher Columbus
On June 22 — the same day he introduced the bill to rededicate the Herring Park Columbus obelisk — Dorsey alleged on Twitter that he was harassed by a neighbor who blew a whistle until he came outside, threatened him with a dog, called him homosexual slurs and told him he’s “messing with the Italians.”
A neighbor blew a whistle in front of my house tonight until I came out looking for somebody in distress. He then brought his German Sheppard within a foot of me, repeatedly called me a faggot while flashing a light in my face and said, “you’re messing with the Italians.”
— Ryan Dorsey (@ElectRyanDorsey) June 23, 2020
Two days later, Dorsey tweeted that he had received calls at his office from constituents who said that his endeavor to rededicate the obelisk was “messing with the Italian mafia.”
In January 2020, cellphone camera footage of a Baltimore Police officer being kicked by civilians was widely circulated on Twitter. In response to a video tweeted on July 2 by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton demonstrating that the police officer in the video shoved a civilian before being kicked in the alleged assault and subdued a civilian in a chokehold, Dorsey called for the officer’s removal from his position, writing: “Cops lie all the time. They don’t know how to do their job, so they do whatever they want and tell whatever story is convenient to their interests.”
Critical of the Baltimore Police Department’s handling of the situation, Dorsey tagged the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, asking for their comment.
“Looking forward to @FOP3 commentary. Will they come for the cop? Or will they sit silently like they do whenever cops get found out for their bullshit?” he wrote.
In response, the union called out Dorsey for allegedly calling the police the night he was harassed by his neighbor, saying he was a “hypocrite.”
Wow @ElectRyanDorsey! Sure hope the "movement" doesn't disown you once they find out that you accepted extra protection (special attention) from the BPD after the recent argument with your neighbor. Can't call for disbanding the BPD then use them when you feel unsafe. Hypocrite!
— Baltimore City FOP (@FOP3) July 3, 2020
On the evening of the Columbus statue’s removal, a Twitter account titled “Scan the Police // Baltimore City” (@scanthepolice) — which regularly tweets to a public account what is overheard on Baltimore City Police scanners — was giving a play-by-play of police activity surrounding the protesters.
At one point, as the demonstrators were passing by the Fraternal Order of Police memorial to fallen officers near President Street, the account holder tweeted that officers saw protesters stop near the memorial.
“Scanner: Cop says it looks like some protesters want to do one thing and some want to do another; one cop says, ‘That’s where our memorial is,’ referring to FOP-funded memorial on President, which another says they should guard; they’re also sending cops to guard Columbus statue,” the account wrote.
Ultimately, Scan the Police // Baltimore City said officers watched the crowd move on toward the harbor. In response, Dorsey tweeted, asking why protesters would pass the statue by, given the current political environment — the “smoking tweet.”
How is it that with all the attention given to the Columbus monuments, and as consistently awful as the FOP is, how is the FOP memorial not on the list of monuments to remove?
— Ryan Dorsey (@ElectRyanDorsey) July 5, 2020
“How is it that with all the attention given to the Columbus monuments, and as consistently awful as the FOP is, how is the FOP memorial not on the list of monuments to remove?” he wrote.
After receiving some backlash, Dorsey felt the need to clarify his question on Twitter three days later.
“FOP3 is a toxic, divisive organization. FOP3 attacks and tears down every effort to reform BPD. FOP3 wages endless war against anyone who dares speak out against police corruption, misconduct, and abuse, including its own officers. FOP3 defends and encourages unconstitutional conduct by its officers,” Dorsey wrote.
“Why would such an organization have a monument in Baltimore City?” he asked, adding that some of his followers clarified that the memorial is not specific to the Fraternal Order of Police.
Wednesday, Mike Mancuso, Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police president, issued a statement on Twitter about Dorsey, declaring he had filed a Public Information Act request to the police department surrounding their interactions with the councilman and had sent a letter to Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison, warning of the councilman’s “veiled threats” to the statue.
— Baltimore City FOP (@FOP3) July 8, 2020
Dorsey told Maryland Matters in an email that Hogan, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the Fraternal Order of Police have “mischaracteriz[ed]” his comments, adding that he has not called for the removal of the monument and that his question was an invitation for debate surrounding his critique of the Fraternal Order of Police.
“The FOP, Sinclair, and now the Governor, among others, have all chosen to respond as if my question was a call to action. That is false. I call on them to immediately cease coordinating with each other to misconstrue my comments,” Dorsey wrote. “Their irresponsible reductionism leads only to one place: the chilling of free speech and the closing of a free society.”
“On the topic of monuments, the only thing I have actually called for is for victims of police violence to receive their own memorial at a location in my district, and I’ve introduced substantive legislation to do so.”