Meet the Indigenous Activist Who Toppled Minnesota’s Christopher Columbus Statue
The unauthorized removal of the monument took place during the racial justice protests of summer 2020
Mike Forcia had it all planned out.
His Bad River Anishinaabe relatives, along with representatives from other Indigenous groups living in Minnesota, would fill the state capitol lawn with drummers and dancers, sending song and the ringing of jingle dresses into the air around a ten-foot bronze statue of Christopher Columbus that had stood there since 1931. He would invite the Somali and Hmong communities, too—everyone living in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as refugees or immigrants. “I wanted them to bring their drums and their outfits,” he said when describing his vision, “their dance, their food, their art and their history.”
But then, on the night of June 9, 2020, protesters in Richmond, Virginia, tore down a statue of Columbus, set it on fire and rolled it into a lake. A few hours later, police discovered that someone had decapitated a Columbus in a park in Boston. Forcia, a longtime Indigenous activist, heard through his network that someone else was planning to take down Minnesota’s Columbus under the cover of darkness.
“I just panicked,” Forcia said. “I panicked because I had plans for that statue.” The Columbus statue had been unveiled decades earlier in front of a St. Paul crowd of thousands, and he had promised himself that a monument “put up in broad daylight … should come down in broad daylight.”
So, on the morning of June 10, Forcia issued an invitation on Facebook for people to meet him at the statue at 5 p.m. Columbus’ deportation would not be as grand as Forcia had imagined, but he would do his best.
Videos of the crowd tugging Columbus off his base that day provided some of the defining visuals of summer 2020. The scene played on the news so often that you’d be forgiven for assuming that more monuments shared Columbus’ fate. In reality, of the 214 monuments that came down after the death of George Floyd, 179—over 80 percent—were removed officially, following decisions by local authorities. Protesters pulled down only 13 Confederate monuments and 22 monuments to other controversial historical figures like Columbus.
Most of these activists concealed their faces or struck at night. They likely wanted to avoid the potentially heavy criminal and financial penalties for such acts. Forcia, however, has taken full, public responsibility for toppling a monument. This means he can explain what he hoped to achieve by doing so—and why it was worth the risk.
For Forcia, toppling the Columbus statue wasn’t about the distant past—it was about the way that those changes in Indigenous people’s names and religion continue to reverberate today. “When Columbus came here, he brought with him Jesus, Satan and alcohol,” Forcia said. “And that’s what did our people in.”
Land loss and religious change are deeply tied together in the history of Minnesota. During an 1870s gold rush, railroad companies began building lines across the Great Plains toward the new boomtowns. They began to subsidize new settlements, with three separate railroads naming the bishop of St. Paul their land agent. Beginning in 1875, the bishop arranged for more than 4,000 Catholic families to homestead across 400,000 acres of western Minnesota.
The Catholic Church was not only intimately involved in the resettlement of Minnesota; it also played a large role in the forced assimilation of the Indigenous people who lived in the state. As in other parts of the United States, Indigenous children were forced to attend government-funded boarding schools. The commissioner of Indian affairs could withhold annuities or rations from parents who failed to cooperate. At times, children were forcibly abducted. The goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” as the head of one of the first boarding schools put it. The schools stripped students of their cultural traditions. Their hair was cut, their traditional clothes were burned, and they were punished for speaking anything but English. Physical and sexual abuse was pervasive.
When the students finally went home, it had usually been years since they had seen their families. Many had forgotten, or had never had a chance to learn, key parts of their culture and religion. Forcia’s mother was one of these students. She attended Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School on the Ojibwe reservation in Odanah, Wisconsin.
“She was infected with Christianity,” Forcia recalls. “Before she died, she said, ‘Mike, all I know is Jesus. I don’t know the Big Lodge or the Big Drum. I don’t know the stories.’” Forcia calls forced conversions like hers “America’s greatest victory over Native Americans.”
Forcia traces the Indigenous community’s poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues to the loss of lands, taken for the sake of their natural resources by America’s “corporate capitalist economy.” He believes assimilation robbed his people of the wealth of their ancestral tradition and “its wisdom and guidance for a living in a good way with all creation.”
For Forcia, the Columbus monument, standing just outside the state legislature, was a highly visible symbol of the ways in which authorities were continuing to ignore the Indigenous past and present. The activist wanted to use this very visibility to bring light to hidden pain and make those warnings clear.
Ever since 1952, when the federal Urban Relocation Program offered housing assistance and jobs for Native Americans willing to move to urban areas, the Twin Cities have been a center of Indigenous community and activism. The East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis became one of the largest concentrations of urban Indigenous people in America. “The idea was to assimilate us. Get us off the reservation,” the Indigenous attorney and Twin Cities resident Terri Yellowhammer explains, but many never got the job placements they were promised. In reaction, the American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in Minneapolis in the late 1960s. AIM volunteers began patrolling East Phillips, where substance abuse, poverty and crime persisted, hoping to provide an alternative to traditional policing.
After George Floyd’s killing in police custody in May 2020, when the Twin Cities erupted in fiery protest, Forcia began patrolling again. That June, as he was deciding what to do about Columbus, his bedroom “smelled like burnt city” from the smoke that clung to his clothes.
Columbus wasn’t always celebrated as a hero in the United States. He never even set foot in North America, instead landing in the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. It was only after the Revolutionary War, when the newly independent country no longer wanted to give credit to the British for colonizing America, that Columbus became a standard part of the nation’s origin story. Monuments to him began to multiply in the early 20th century, when Columbus became a tool for Italian immigrants to argue their claim to American citizenship—and to whiteness.
No contemporary portraits of Columbus survive today. Thus, Columbus monuments always reveal more about their creators’ intentions than the man being memorialized. It’s no accident that the St. Paul statue—designed by Italian Carlo Brioschi—looks as though it just stepped out of a Northern Renaissance painting. When Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States (more than four million between 1880 and 1920), whiteness was still defined as people of “Anglo-Saxon,” Germanic or Nordic descent. Italians were relegated to an uneasy position, above other non-white people but not fully white.
Italian Americans organized to push back against negative stereotypes, which were used to restrict them to low-paying work and exclude them from political participation. Community leaders tried to take advantage of the nation’s prioritization of whiteness by insisting that Italians, too, were fully white. Brioschi’s Columbus, with his straight nose and strong jaw, was a visual argument for the whiteness—and therefore, the Americanness—of the artist’s fellow Italian Americans.
When Forcia arrived at the monument an hour before the protest was scheduled to start, Captain Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol was there to greet him. In an exchange captured by bystanders’ cameras and described in later statements by Roeske, the officer handed Forcia a copy of Minnesota Statute 15B.08 and explained that it outlined how to request Columbus’ removal.
“There’s a process,” Roeske began to explain. But Forcia interrupted him.
“Are you new to Minnesota?” he asked incredulously. “Don’t you know how many times we protested this?”
Forcia turned to the people who had already begun to gather. “You’ve all grown up watching us protest this thing. How many times must we protest it? Let’s take it down. Let’s take it down!”
Roeske clutched the rejected printout in his hands, his forearm resting on the yellow grip of the Taser holstered in his belt. “Every time we come here, there’s a ‘process,’” Forcia continued, pointing at Columbus. “And the ‘process’ is to keep him up.”
Indigenous Minnesotans had protested the Columbus monument since at least the 1970s. Almost every year on Columbus Day, someone would toss a water balloon filled with red paint—or sometimes their own blood—at its face. At a more elaborate protest in October 2015, dancers and drummers surrounded the monument, while members of the Ogichidaakwe Council’s elders group sang and protesters marched with signs, one reading “stop honoring genocide.” A blue sticky note covered the part of the base’s inscription that called Columbus “the discover of America,” naming him instead “the father of violence against Native people.”
Over the decades, activists circulated petitions and repeatedly asked the state to reconsider the statue. Those years of petitions weren’t rejected—they simply went unconsidered.
On the day of the statue’s removal, Forcia told Roeske, “We’ll help you pick him up, we’ll help you carry him into the capitol. We’ll make sure we don’t get hurt. We’ll pay for any damage … but he has to go.”
He continued to needle the officer, referencing the killing of Floyd at the hands of his fellow policemen. “Are you going to beat me for it? Are you going to tase me?”
The crowd around the statue grew bigger. “Will you kneel on me?”
“I’m out here by myself,” Roeske replied softly.
“We don’t want anyone ‘resisting arrest’ and accidentally getting killed,” Forcia said.
“Nobody wants that.”
“No, nobody wants that, but look how many times that’s happened,” Forcia replied acerbically. “Let’s be Minnesota nice.”
Roeske walked a short distance away to contact his superiors. The 35 troopers already mobilized for the event began to move in, but without urgency. It was as if they were convinced that the thin ropes Forcia began to prepare wouldn’t be enough to take down a figure supported by centuries of adulation. Forcia tied slipknots and tried to toss loops of rope over Columbus’ head before another man scaled the statue’s base to help him. Then Forcia put one of the most important parts of his plan to work: “We have so many missing and murdered Indian women,” he shouted to the crowd. “And [Columbus] was the start of it all. I think our women should be in the front of that rope.”
Around 20 women, mostly Indigenous, grabbed each rope. Most were dressed for a summer afternoon in shorts and slip-on shoes. They did not come expecting to do the work of taking down Columbus. But after just a few heaves, the blocks of the pedestal slid apart, and Columbus tilted downward. The statue twisted as it fell. Columbus’ right index finger pointed toward the spot where he would soon land, then bent inward when it hit the pavement. Columbus had finally discovered the ground.
“It’s a beautiful thing because we have suffered from what [Columbus] did to us,” said Dorene Day, an Ojibwe woman who brought several of her children and her grandchildren to the protest. She understood what Forcia had dramatized by asking women to take the ropes. In Minnesota—and across North America—Indigenous women, girls, and transgender and two spirit people experience disproportionate violence that often goes unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted.
“Traditionally, they are our leaders,” Forcia explained when asked him why he invited women to take the ropes. “I want to make sure they retain and resume that role in our communities.”
Several protesters unfurled a huge banner printed with “end white supremacy” behind the musicians who began to perform. Drummers proclaimed their triumph. A round dance formed, with protesters moving in a ring around the statue. Another woman danced while recording the scene on a pink cell phone, her fluffy white dog bouncing around the statue. Forcia used a pocketknife to cut the ropes into pieces, handing them out as souvenirs.
Roeske returned to negotiate with Forcia, who agreed to help disperse the crowd before the troopers felt obliged to arrest anyone. “It’s time,” Forcia called to the celebrants. “They want to remove the body.”
When the statue was gone, taken by the officers to an undisclosed storage location, Forcia prepared to turn himself in. He had promised Roeske he would do so. Before he left for the police station, he climbed up onto the empty pedestal.
“Chris had a pretty good view up here,” he told a few remaining supporters. All the rest had dispersed calmly, with no arrests made. “Tomorrow we can say, as Native people, we are still here. And he is gone.”
Forcia was charged with a felony for criminal damage to property. Six months after Columbus came down, assistant county attorney Sarah Cory addressed the judge overseeing his case. “The violence, exploitation and forced assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated from colonial times into modern times,” she said. “The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized by or unknown to the dominant culture.”
Cory also acknowledged “the failure of public systems” to provide a real process for seeking removal of the monument, calling the toppling an “unlawful act that was committed out of civil disobedience.” She informed the judge that prosecutors had agreed to drop all charges once Forcia performed community service: 100 hours spent educating people about the legacy of trauma that had led him to topple the statue.
Excerpted from Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. Copyright © 2022 by Erin L. Thompson. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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