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History calls for compromise over Columbus Day recognition

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Women dance in the streets in North Beach during the 2017 Italian Heritage Parade in San Francisco on Oct. 8. (Courtesy Gustavo Fernandez)

It was with great shock and feelings of violation that San Francisco’s Italian-American community learned of legislation, approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed into law by Mayor Mark Farrell, that locally renamed Columbus Day, a national holiday, to Indigenous Peoples Day.

In a city that prides itself on inclusion, fairness and outreach, and one governed by a strict sunshine ordinance mandating that all proposed legislation be clearly titled and summarized in a simple manner expressing its essence and effects, the “Indigenous Peoples Day” legislation does not mention such a day replacing Columbus Day in its title or in the first 15 lines of its findings.

Adding to confusion caused by unclear noticing of the above ordinance, neither its author nor any other member of the Board of Supervisors made any outreach to San Francisco’s Italian-American community or to the Native American community for input as to its content.

This lack of inclusiveness explains why little opposition to the legislation was voiced by the public at the Rules Committee hearing on Jan. 17.

Once the Italian-American Community realized the proposed “Indigenous Peoples Day” actually targeted and removed local recognition of Columbus Day — an historic source of great pride for its members — hundreds of angry letters, emails and a protest rally ensued. However, despite the outcry, no public comment was allowed at the Board of Supervisors meetings on Jan. 23 and Jan. 30, during which deciding votes took place on the measure. As an additional insult, Supervisor Hillary Ronen, among her negative comments about Columbus, referred to him in a derogatory manner as “that Italian.”

Under the auspices of the Coalition of Italian American Organizations, a petition drive has been initiated to qualify a referendum to repeal the renaming of Columbus Day either by the action of the supervisors or by a vote of San Francisco’s registered voters. In order to qualify for a future ballot, sponsors must provide the Department of Elections with 20,000 valid signatures of registered San Francisco voters by March 9.

Many fairer solutions to recognize Native Americans, not at the expense of Italian heritage, can mutually be crafted, but the existing legislation must first be repealed. In 2018, the occasion of the 150th anniversary of San Francisco’s Columbus Day Parade, history calls for compromise. In New York City, the issue surrounding Columbus Circle was resolved with a solution respectful both to Italian Americans and Native Americans.

Inspired by a referendum process created by Hiram Johnson and by the words of Theodore Roosevelt, we ask San Franciscans to “Let the people rule!”

Michael J. Antonini is a retired dentist and former San Francisco planning commissioner.

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