Leaders consider lawsuit over DOE’s holiday removal
MANHATTAN — With chants of “Keep Columbus Day,” dozens of activists gathered at a Columbus Circle rally to denounce the city Department of Education’s (DOE) decision to remove Columbus Day from the school calendar.
Several local Italian American leaders spoke at Wednesday’s rally and called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter to reinstate the Columbus Day holiday, which was removed as an official school holiday and replaced with a new one — Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.
Outraged Italian American leaders hinted that if their pleas fall on deaf ears, they may sue the city over the removal of Columbus Day, which they call a slap in the face to the people of their community.
“A lawsuit is something we’re considering. We’re looking at all of our options,” said Angelo Vivolo, chairman of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, the group that organizes New York City’s annual Columbus Day Parade.
“In this time when we strive for unity and respect for the civil rights of all, Mayor de Blasio and his education department violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of Italian American students in New York City,” Vivolo said as the crowd stood in the shadows of the famed statue of Christopher Columbus that rises over Columbus Circle.
Arthur Aidala, the lawyer representing the Columbus Citizens Foundation, said leaders “are looking at all of the avenues available to us to make sure that Italian American heritage is properly secured and will use every proper and legal channel to do so.”
Robert M. Ferrito, national president of the Commission for Social Justice of the Order of Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, accused the city of discrimination.
“Stop violating Italian American civil rights and stop dividing people by pitting one group against another!” he said. “We demand that Italian Americans be treated equally in the city of New York.”
Ferrito called on elected city officials to join the fight.
The controversy erupted on May 4 when the DOE, without warning, posted its holiday calendar for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year, which had no listing for Columbus Day on October 11. Instead, the second Monday in October was listed as Indigenous People’s Day.
Adding to the confusion, the DOE changed course within hours and renamed the holiday, once again, to Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.
In recent years, several cities across the U.S. have eliminated Columbus Day celebrations and replaced the holiday with Indigenous People’s Day amid charges that Columbus cruelly subjected Indigenous people to violence during his travels to the New World.
Italian Americans saw the DOE’s removal of the holiday, named after the Italian explorer, as an insult to their community.
“We have given so much to this great country as Italian Americans that we deserve at least to have a day for this great, great heritage that to me is a foundation of the United States of America,” said Joe Piscopo, the comedian and radio talk show host who serves as a television host each year for the Columbus Day Parade.
Mayor de Blasio’s office did not return The Tablet’s request for comment, but the mayor told reporters at City Hall on May 6 that he was blindsided by the move and wasn’t briefed by DOE officials before the Columbus Day decision was made.
The DOE also did not return requests for comment. The agency did release a statement last week defending its decision.
“By including these holidays on our calendar, we are honoring the past, present, and future contributions of Indigenous communities and Italian Americans,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said.
Combining Italian Heritage Day with Indigenous People’s Day is a mistake, said John Mazzola, a member of the board of directors of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn.
“They could have made any other day Indigenous People’s Day. They could have used Thanksgiving for that day,” he said.
Italian Americans take great pride in Columbus Day, Mazzola said, adding: that “it represents all of the efforts they put into building this city and country.”