The base of a controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City was splashed with blood-red paint early Thursday morning.
Erected in 1938, the 10-foot-tall statue has been a focal point of Columbus Day protests for two years running. It depicts the former president on horseback flanked by an indigenous man and an African-American man in what NYU Professor of Social And Cultural Analysis Andrew Ross described earlier this year as a condescending "expression of a power relation."
No one appeared to have taken responsibility for the vandalism as of 7:00 a.m. A few police officers were on the scene around 7:20, and the statue was cordoned off with crime scene tape. No arrests had been made as of 8:45, according to the NYPD.
The incident comes in the midst of a heated debate about statues and monuments locally and nationally, in the wake of a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, participants rallied around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
President Donald Trump was widely criticized for failing to explicitly condemn the Charlottesville racists, even after one man in that group killed an anti-racist protester with his car. Dozens of Confederate monuments were subsequently removed across the country, including in the Bronx, and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a panel of artists, historians and activists to review all "symbols of hate" city-wide. That group is in the midst of a 90 day review of NYC monuments and statues, and yesterday the de Blasio administration released an online survey asking New Yorkers for comment on the city's process.
Meanwhile, de Blasio has condemned acts of vandalism. Unknown vandals dabbed red paint on the hands of a Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park in September. And in August, a controversial Central Park statue of a doctor who experimented on slaves was found defaced with the word "racist."
This Columbus Day, activist groups, including Decolonize this Place, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, and Black Youth Project 100 called for the Roosevelt statue's removal and briefly pulled a banner across it printed with the words "Decolonize This City." The action capped a rogue tour of the museum, during which activists challenged the legacy of Roosevelt, the conservationist president who championed the National Park Service and espoused racial hierarchies.
Adjectives describing Roosevelt carved into the museum's exterior—scientist, explorer, scholar, ranchman, conservationist, naturalist—were also swiped over with red paint Thursday.
Reviews of the paint job were mixed.
"I think it's reprehensible," said Mark White, 49, who passed the fresh paint while walking his dog.
"I didn't even know what this statue was, to be honest. I've walked by it a dozen times," he added. "Now I can see why that's offensive for some people, but I think there are better ways to protest a statue than chucking red paint all over it, right?"
A passing taxi driver yelled out of his window: "The statue has to go!"
Another man, who identified himself only as a veteran, rushed angrily towards the statue and accused a small group of reporters of splashing the paint.
"Take your Hillary Clinton f--king kiss-asses and go somewhere else and do it," he yelled. "Leave my city alone."
The museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"There's no place for vandalism in this conversation," said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl in a statement. Finkelpearl is co-chairing the mayor's review committee.
Additional reporting by Clifford Michel.
[Update 1:00 p.m.]: A group calling itself the Monument Removal Brigade has taken credit for the paint splatters—which police had removed by 10:00 a.m.—in a lengthy online statement. There are no names affiliated with the group, though the statement was tweeted by Decolonize This Place, one of the groups behind this year's Columbus Day action at the museum.
"Now the statue is bleeding," the group stated. "We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue. The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue."
The brigade also described the act as "kickstarting" the process of removing the statue, and called on the museum to use its "leverage" to urge City Hall to finish the job.
Museum spokeswoman Anne Canty emphasized that the statue is on public land, not museum property. "The museum continues to believe that the statue needs to be addressed and several factors will figure into determining the exact approach," she said. "Internally, the Museum is considering what might be done, but the decision on how to address the statue is not solely at the Museum’s discretion."
No arrests had been made as of Thursday afternoon, police said.