Locals Protest at Union Station on Columbus Day

Issues of Indigenous Rights Linked to Environmental, Urban Issues -- and Union Station Redesign

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Residents and organizers gather in the rain with banners to protest Christopher Columbus Day at Columbus Circle outside of Union Station. Photo: S. Payne

More than 20 locals joined in national efforts to recognize indiegnous people’s day at Union Station the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 12. The organizers are affiliated with Arm and Arm DC,an activist group which organized to protest both the current Union Station redesign plan and the continued recognition of Christopher Columbus through the name Columbus Circle and the Columbus statue outside of the station. 

Activists questioned why the renaming of the circle was not part of redesign plans.

Brent Huggins, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, spoke at the event about the importance of education and remembrance of these indigenous groups, especially on Columbus Day. 

“Even after all of these years, we still continue to have monuments to genoside and to colonization,” Huggins said. “Columbus killed many indigenous people and it’s really shocking and hurtful that we continue to hold up monuments like this today.”

Huggins emphasized that issues such as climate and DC Statehood were linked to the continuation of harm against indigienous people, arguing that much of the oil used in vehicles that would park in the Union Station lot is taken from vulnerable communities of Native Americans across the nation.

Native American reservations represent only 2 percent of the land but hold approximately 20 percent of the country’s fossil fuel reserves. Fights over extraction have jeopardized the land, social structures and soverignty of nations.

Earlier this year, the plan to redesign the District’s transit hub drew swift backlash from city residents and the business community alike and attention to a division over whether it is a hub for cars or for people, centering on questions of parking, pick-up and drop-off as well as the facility for large buses. Much of the debate about the redesign centered on the expansion of the Union Station parking garage, slated to have 1,600 parking spaces.

Huggins said the many reasons for the protest are tied together more closely than it would appear. Neither District residents nor members of the Cherokee Nation have a voting federal representative, he pointed out. At the same time, decisions made by federal agencies such as the  Federal Rail Administration (FRA) which is leading the project, impact both parties. “Union Station is planning over the next twenty years to build another massive parking garage, which really is going to promote more fossil fuels,” Huggins said.

Keya Chatterjee is the executive director of US Climate Action Network and a candidate for ANC 6A01 this November. Chatterjee said that both city plans and the national holiday inspired the organization of this protest. 

“We were really distraught about the terrible plan they have to redevelop Union Station and focus on even more parking instead of focusing on public transportation, walking, biking, trains and buses,” Chatterjee said. “(We were) also really distraught that they they choose to honor a person who committed genocide around our train station and so on Indigenous People’s Day, we thought it was really important to make a statement that we have community members do not support this.” 

Monday’s rainy weather did not appear to sway the support for this movement. Chatterjee emphasized the importance of inclusivity of all residents of this area.

“We really feel passionately about the need to protect the people in places that we love,” Chatterjee said. “That means we have a real commitment to being here and sending a message that what’s happening here in our neighborhood is not okay with us. We’re really committed to our neighborhood, and making sure that it’s transformed in a way that’s inclusive of everybody.”

If you were unable to join in the protest on Monday, you can get involved and stay informed about upcoming events, protests and initiatives by visiting the Arm in Arm for Climate website and selecting the DC hub. 

Sarah Payne is a History and Neuroscience student at The University of Michigan interning with HillRag. She writes for and serves as an assistant news editor for Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can reach her at [email protected]