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Survivor switches sides

Columbine victim will join protesters at Columbus parade

By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News
October 6, 2003

Six months after surviving the shootings at Columbine High School, Richard Castaldo was wheeled up Fifth Avenue in New York, waving an Italian flag alongside Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at the city's Columbus Day parade.

Four years later, Castaldo still says he's proud of that Italian flag, and grateful to the people who invited him to New York.

As for the "Columbus" part, Castaldo says, he's changed his mind.

"It was an honor, but I didn't really think about (Columbus) at the time," said the 22-year-old, who was paralyzed from the chest down by a bullet in the 1999 school shooting. "It seems like we really shouldn't be celebrating someone who killed so many people."

Castaldo - a third-generation Italian-American - will participate in this year's protests against Denver's Columbus Day parade, asking organizers to drop the "Columbus" name in favor of a celebration of "the beauty of Italian culture."

The parade has been a flashpoint for protesters, who in the past have shouted down participants, accusing Christopher Columbus of crimes against indigenous people.

Italian-American groups counter that Columbus remains a hero, and claim that his accomplishments are a perfect base on which to hinge a monthlong celebration of Italian heritage.

The annual parade was temporarily halted in 1992, when participants were met by thousands of angry protesters. It was restarted in 2000 after Justice Department officials were called in to mediate a truce between parade organizers and the opposition - largely represented by the American Indian Movement.

At one point, mediators thought they had found common ground - a plan to rename the parade "The March for Italian Pride" - but organizers eventually dropped the idea.

Since then, protesters have spent their time organizing counter-marches and publicizing what they say were Columbus' crimes. The group even created an extensive Web site that still receives kudos and derision in e-mails posted from throughout the country.

Last year an estimated 2,000 protesters met about 1,000 Columbus Day parade participants in an event watched by about 600 police officers. Seven protesters were arrested.

This year, police again promise a "sufficient number of officers" to oversee the event.

Parade organizer George Vendegnia said parade participants will meet opponents with waves and smiles, intent on keeping the day calm.

"We're peaceful people. We're there to celebrate the day, and our First Amendment right," Vendegnia said. "The Columbus Day parade's not going to go away, that's for sure."

Castaldo remains soft-spoken, but has kept a relatively high profile in the years since the Columbine shootings. In 2001 he appeared in the documentary Bowling for Columbine, where his presence helped pressure Kmart to stop selling bullets for handguns. Most recently, Castaldo worked with the Arvada-based PeaceJam to help raise money for schools in East Timor.

"He took on Kmart, he can take on this," said Rudy Balles, director of the Gang Rescue and Support Project, who met Castaldo through PeaceJam and asked him to participate in the counter-march.

Friday night, opponents of Columbus Day will hold the "Four Directions All Nations March" - an event organizers say will celebrate all cultures, including Italian-Americans. Saturday morning, the group will hold the actual protest march, asking that Columbus' name be removed from the parade.

According to the Order of the Sons of Italy in America, based in Washington, D.C., removing "Columbus" from "Columbus Day" is out of the question.

"The U.S. has more monuments to Christopher Columbus than any other country in the world and its national capital is named in his honor. . . . We support keeping one of America's oldest holidays the way it was traditionally named," said Dona DeSanctis, deputy executive director of the Sons of Italy, who expressed regret over Castaldo's decision to participate in the counter-rally.

"We support the right of every American to have an opinion and express it. I think, however, what this activist group is doing by using an impressionable young person to promote their social and political agendas is not really admirable," DeSanctis said. "If the Italian-Americans wanted to, they could bring out American Indians who support them, but that's not our style."

Castaldo said he plans to participate only in peaceful protest, and is not worried about any personal backlash. He and Balles say their primary goal is just to get the opposing groups on speaking terms.

"This isn't an anti-American thing or an anti-Italian thing," Balles said. "We can all come together to address this thing as a whole. How do we bring peace and mediate this?"

Copyright 2003, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.