Felony charge filed against Native activist for toppling Columbus statue

Mike Forcia hands out pieces of the rope used to tear down the Christopher Columbus statue in St. Paul on June 10. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi charged a Native activist with a felony Thursday for toppling the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul on June 10.

Mike Forcia, a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, was the only person charged in connection with the incident, although numerous people helped pull down the statue during a planned and widely publicized demonstration in front of the State Capitol.

Choi’s office said it compiled more than 13,000 pages in its investigative file and determined that Forcia was the primary leader and executor of the incident. Forcia had spoken to investigators on multiple occasions but declined to provide names of others who participated.

Despite the gravity of the felony charge, which usually carries prison time, Choi said his office would take a “restorative justice” approach.

“We are working on developing a restorative process to give voice to those divergent opinions and bring people who hold them together to determine how best we hold Mr. Forcia accountable while healing our community from the harm that was caused,” Choi said in a statement.

Native activists had long criticized the statue of Columbus as a symbol of colonization and genocide against Native Americans. Forcia planned the event to pull down the statue in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, as demonstrations for racial justice filled city streets across the country and dozens of monuments to the Confederacy and several of Columbus came down.

“For healing to happen, this needed to happen,” Forcia said at the time in front of the toppled statue. “It was here for far too long. It’s a slap in the face to all Native people and all people of color.”

Once the statue was pulled down, the demonstration quickly turned into a celebration with people singing and dancing around the fallen statue.

Jack Rice, Forcia’s attorney, said it is unlikely that Forcia will serve any prison time given he doesn’t have a criminal history, but they are very concerned about the charge.

“There’s a lot of financial ramifications he could face. And just walking around with a felony on your record can have many ramifications,” Rice said.

Rice, who is a member of the Luiseño tribe, said he understands that many people were very upset by the statue coming down and hopes the “restorative process” will lead to a broader conversation about Columbus.

“Columbus, first of all, never discovered America. Columbus was an enslaver,” Rice said. “And he really does represent the front end of 500 years of genocide. And so from the perspective of the Native American community, the pain that this has caused is exactly what they think about. When you hear about erasing history, they feel like they’re the ones that have been erased.”

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the highest ranking Native woman elected to executive office, released a statement after the statue fell in which she stopped just shy of congratulating the demonstrators.

“I can’t say I’m sad the statue of Christopher Columbus is gone. I’m not,” she wrote. “All Minnesotans should feel welcome at the Minnesota State Capitol, and our state is long overdue for a hard look at the symbols, statues and icons that were created without the input of many of our communities.”

But the toppling, which caused an estimated $154,553 in damage, drew the ire of some lawmakers who balked at the destruction of public property and law enforcement’s failure to stop it.

“They knew there was a threat to the Christopher Columbus statue, and (Gov. Tim Walz) failed to adequately protect it,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a statement. “The mob mentality to do whatever people want without repercussion has got to stop.”

State troopers arrived on the scene ahead of the statue toppling and informed Forcia about the correct process for changing monuments at the Capitol. The troopers then left. An hour after the statue was toppled, they reappeared and pushed activists away so the statue could be loaded onto the back of a truck and carried away.

Forcia identified himself as the chairman of the Twin Cities American Indian Movement. Leaders from the National American Indian Movement based in Minneapolis told investigators they didn’t sanction the protest.

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