On your way into the Municipal Services Building, Frank Rizzo stands to greet you. It’s been that way since 1998, when the one-ton, bronze statue was installed atop its steps. As of this weekend, there are more than 1,000 signatures on an online petition to have the sculpture taken down.
Rizzo’s iron-fist terms as police commissioner and mayor in the ’60s and ’70s saw a string of incidents of police brutality that scholars say severely divided the city racially, and left lasting effects on the city’s neighborhoods and police force to this day.
“The removal of this statue would be the first step in acknowledging Rizzo’s crimes against the African-American community,” the petition reads. “It would be a much needed step towards truth and reconciliation, and holding police accountable for misconduct.”
Rizzo’s poor record with race relations didn’t affect whether or not a statue would be erected, and did not prevent the bronze Rizzo from waving towards Dilworth Plaza and City Hall.
The city now owns the statue, but the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee raised the funds for it. The Arts Commission had to approve its placement.
Thora Jacobson, the then-chairwoman of the Arts Commission and current executive director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, first heard of the petition when Billy Penn spoke with her. “Why would they want to take it down? Is it people don’t like Frank Rizzo?” When she was told that some Philadelphians connect his legacy to racism and demagoguery, she said, “Oh, goodness, it’s not like he’s Donald Trump.” Jacobson declined to answer questions for this article.
Before settling on Municipal Service Building steps, the Arts Commission had approved installing the statue in JFK Plaza, but the Fairmount Park Commission wouldn’t say yes to that.
“This is not about former mayor Frank Rizzo,” Fairmount Park commission member Ernesta Ballard, who sealed her place in Philadelphia history for upgrading the hell out of the Flower Show, told the Inquirer in 1994. “It’s about the axis between William Penn, George Washington and the Art Museum. I’m trying to think of any individual who should be on the axis with George Washington and William Penn. It’s the wrong place for a statue of anyone.”
Bill Mifflin, then-executive director of the Fairmount Park Commission, says Ballard summed up the issue perfectly and confirms that Rizzo’s record with race didn’t play a role in their decision-making. He says he gets the petition, but he’s really not for taking the statue down.
“I’m talking to my granddaughter; she’s a senior at Central High School. She’s on the opposite side perhaps that I am,” he says. She “certainly [sees] him different from what she knows about Rizzo.”
Looking at Rizzo post-Ferguson
It might be eyebrow-raising that not even 20 years ago a 10-foot sculpture of a mayor who elicited feelings of fear and resentment in many Philadelphians failed to receive more pushback on the part of either commission.
But the discussion around Rizzo’s legacy has shifted a lot. For some, the criticism of the statue is right on time: Police brutality, and the activist movements to squash it, have captured the nation’s attention. For others, the efforts appears overdue: Plenty of Philadelphians have been calling Rizzo a bigot for decades.
“I’m surprised it took so long,” Karen M. Turner, a journalism professor at Temple, told the Associated Press of the petition. “But this is something young people are doing now: delving into the public expression of our history and asking, ‘Is it accurate?'”
Today, past reports of police brutality are being read in the age of Black Lives Matter. The post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore reassessment that appears to have made a far-reaching impact on press was an October Vice article, “The Brutal Legacy of Frank Rizzo, the Most Notorious Cop in Philadelphia History.” One of the incidents that local writer Jake Blumgart detailed was the 1967 school board protest. Students were there to push for an black studies curriculum. Rizzo denied that he said what newspapers printed: “Get their black asses.”
Witnesses and demonstrators would describe scenes where young protesters had been brutalized “unmercifully” with clubs.
Blumgart writes, “In 1967, [Rizzo’s] approval rating stood at 84 percent, suggesting both blacks and whites were OK with him; after the showdown at the school, letters to the Philadelphia Inquirer were two to one in favor of Rizzo, while letters to the African-American paper, the Tribune, were three to one against.” Rizzo also didn’t have the best reputation in the LGBT community— he used to have gay bars raided.
In the Vice article, Blumgart also floated the idea that Donald Trump and Rizzo had some things in common. Blumgart went all in behind this comparison for Philadelphia Magazine, and it’s been repeated in a growing number of publications, local and national, as the election season has marched forward. That hasn’t really helped Rizzo’s image among the left-leaning.
‘He’s the 1970s white backlash mayor’
Frank Rizzo, Jr. doesn’t seem to be sweating it. “Thank God we live in the United States of America, and we can protest,” the former city councilman at-large tells Billy Penn. On Friday, two protesters placed a KKK hood over the statue’s head and expressed their wishes for its removal before a swarm of press.
“Unfortunately, these folks don’t know a lot about my dad. He was a good man. He was tough during some tough times… Hopefully, they’ll eventually learn more about the man that they’re protesting.”
Rizzo, Jr. says no way his pop was a bigot. “I think it’s an easy shot,” he says. “I think you got to look at the people who are calling him racist and look at their background and see where they come from. If they have been involved in disorderly conduct or committing a crime. I don’t know. Many of my African-American friends never called my father a racist.”
Aside from having a security detail that was overwhelmingly black, “He was the police commissioner who integrated the police department,” says Rizzo, Jr. (Some accounts show that black officers praised Rizzo. Others differ. In 1981, the New York Times reported that black representation in the Philadelphia Police Department had actually fallen from the year Rizzo was appointed. The share of black recruits plummeted, leading to a lawsuit.)
He insists that his father led a life in public service keeping all Philadelphians safe. But Rizzo’s approach resonated differently with Philadelphians across racial and class lines. He served as police commissioner from 1967 to 1971, was mayor from 1972 to 1980. It wasn’t just that he was appointed police commish at the tail-end of the civil rights movement; Rizzo led the police force and served as mayor during eras where the city’s racial makeup experienced dramatic shifts.
Richardson Dilworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel, explains that Rizzo appealed to working class whites who feared that the influx of black migrants could impact their neighborhoods and property values. This same contingent also resented better-off whites who favored integration, but likely had the dough to send their kids private schools. (Dilworth also notes that his grandfather, former Mayor Richardson Dilworth, and Rizzo were not at all fans of each other.)
“He’s the certain type of mayor that you see in other cities as well: He’s the 1970s white backlash mayor,” Dilworth tells Billy Penn.
Timothy J. Lombardo, who’s working on a book about Rizzo, had a similar take in a Twitter essay published Friday. “As police commissioner in the 1960s, Rizzo headed one of the most corrupt and brutal police department’s in the nation,” Lombardo tweeted. “Of course, Rizzo said his tactics were the reason Philly [hadn’t] experienced the riots that hit Watts, Detroit, or Newark. That won him the support of white, blue-collar neighborhoods and led to his two elections as mayor, but the legacy of that police department is the ongoing division between the police and communities of color.”
That perspectives are getting harder on Rizzo come as no shock to Dilworth: “It wouldn’t be surprising in the ’70s to see somewhat less derogatory coverage because he was a reflection of his times. I think today that’s not as true.”
Rizzo, Jr. doesn’t mind that his father is criticized, he just doesn’t want him misrepresented. He lists several African-Americans that his family was friendly with.
African-Americans voted Republican in large numbers for Rizzo’s opponent in ’71. His mayoralty was so poorly received that it’s been credited for inspiring, at least in part, the rise in local black political coalition building. Neither of these history bites seem negative to Junior.
“Well that’s a good thing. If he motivated people to get involved in their civic responsibilities, that’s okay. I don’t mind that he gets that tag.”
Why the statue’s removal would be ‘precedent-setting’
Police were on the scene during Friday’s KKK-hood protest. “Where the hell were you at when he,” Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif pointed to the statue, “was terrorizing your community?” He pointed back to a black cop in front of him at yesterday’s protest. “Beating your uncle. Killing your family members. Where were you?” he asked. “You’re disrespecting your community. You disrespect yourself. Tear this motherfucker down,” he demanded.
Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director of the Association for Public Art, notes that approving and installing a sculpture isn’t the easiest of processes. In light of that, if the statue is to be removed, she believes the matter should be discussed thoroughly and carefully.
“Most of the sculptures that I can think of that have been relocated have been mostly to improve the setting or make the sculpture more visible,” she says. “Doing something like this is precedent-setting.”
Mayor Jim Kenney told the AP that he’s up for meeting with Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, the group that launched the petition: “I’m happy to have a dialogue about the future of Rizzo’s likeness in relation to its location, but that dialogue won’t be started and finished over a few days.”
Khalif let press know when his time was up: He said it was hot. (It really was.) Plus, his point was made.
After that, police took the hood right off.