Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday that he doesn’t condone protesters who tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota Capitol, but that he understands why they did it.
“I won’t condone the behavior. There will be consequences for it,” Walz said at a news conference Thursday. But he also said the frustration of the American Indian Movement protesters who pulled down the statue were acting on legitimate frustration with Columbus’ legacy.
Walz’s remarks came after criticism from Republican legislative leaders of his administration’s muted response to the statue’s toppling.
“They knew there was a threat to the Christopher Columbus statue, and he failed to adequately protect it,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a news release from his office on Thursday. “The mob mentality to do whatever people want without repercussion has got to stop.”
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said a State Patrol captain and a state tribal liaison approached protesters on Wednesday to urge them to follow the official process of petitioning the state to remove a statue. Harrington said protesters felled the statue while that conversation was ongoing, and before a larger group of Patrol officers stationed nearby could reach the scene.
The State Patrol said Wednesday night that it had “identified the instigator who will face charges related to destruction of public property.” Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon said Thursday that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had taken over the investigation, and that once complete it will be turned over to the Ramsey County attorney for consideration of charges.
Columbus, the 15th-century Genoese explorer who was an early European colonizer of the Americas, is a longtime source of ire to American Indians and others for his role in the killing and exploiting of Indigenous people. Protesters in Boston and Richmond, Va., also damaged Columbus statues this week.
The episodes follow nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. Some Republicans also were critical of the late police and National Guard response to the looting and arson in Minneapolis, which resulted in the destruction of a police station and dozens of businesses.
Walz said he believes it’s wrong to draw an equivalency between pulling down the statue with recent looting and burning of local businesses.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first Native American woman elected statewide in Minnesota, said Thursday that she’s glad the statue is gone.
“I’m not going to perform for folks. I’m not going to feign sadness,” Flanagan said, adding that “there is no honor in the legacy of Christopher Columbus.”
Flanagan chairs the state government panel that makes decisions about the placement of statues and artwork in state buildings and property. She said that “the state is long overdue for a hard look at the symbols, statues and icons that were created without the input of any of our communities.”
State Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said on Thursday that Harrington had a different version of the events leading up to the statue’s toppling when they spoke on the phone Wednesday. Nash said Harrington told him he decided to not put Patrol officers between protesters and the statue.
“He said that they didn’t want to incite people further,” Nash said.
Gordon, the Department of Public Safety spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment on Nash’s version of the exchange.
Nash said he understands why protesters don’t like Columbus, and that he would have been open to considering the statue’s removal through the established process.
“If you support what this group did, I guess I’d ask what you would think if Minnesota had a Republican governor who failed to intervene if a group of angry Republicans was trying to pull down the Hubert Humphrey statue,” Nash said.
Asked the whereabouts of Minnesota’s toppled Columbus, Gordon said that “in the interests of public safety, the statue is in an undisclosed location.”