A Monday night tweet from Councilwoman Helen Gym restarted a movement to have the Frank Rizzo statue removed, and the conversation is apparently just beginning.
Gym told Billy Penn she wants to initiate community discussions about the possibility of removing the Rizzo statue when City Council is back in session next month. She has the support of Mayor Jim Kenney when it comes to holding talks about what to do with the statue, which has been located in front of the Municipal Services Building since 1998.
“We think now is a good time to have that conversation about the statue’s future,” Kenney said in a statement. “We need to figure out the proper forum for that conversation in a serious, structured way, but now is the right time.”
Gym said her view on the statue was in part prompted by the violence in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist killed one person and injured 19 others by driving a vehicle through a counter protest. In Durham, N.C., protesters brought down a Confederate statue located in front of a courthouse.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this weekend should have us all being very thoughtful and reflective,” Gym said. “You can’t look at what happened in Charlottesville and Durham and what federal agencies are warning us about racism and violence that’s on the rise and not, frankly, confront our own history in this area.
“Philadelphia doesn’t get a pass just because we weren’t part of the of the Confederacy.”
Disputes over Rizzo’s legacy are nothing new for Philly. Just last year, the Philadelphia Coalition for Real Justice called for the statue to be removed, and a few protesters briefly placed a KKK hood on the statue. More than 1,000 signatures were collected for an online petition calling for its removal. That same petition has collected more than 100 new signatures today.
Rizzo, also a former police commissioner, was mayor from 1972 to 1980. Though crime rates dropped under his watch, he was accused of racism and police brutality, and his controversial tactics have been brought forward in recent years after the rise of Black Lives Matter. The enduring image of his tenure was Rizzo leaving a black-tie-affair with a nightstick in his cummerbund.
Councilman Bill Greenlee said he got into politics in part because he disagreed with Rizzo and was inspired to approach policy differently. However, he said he was undecided on whether the statue should remain.
“Clearly there were people who supported Frank Rizzo because he was Mayor for two terms,” Greenlee said. “I’d have to hear more from the other side before I would make a decision on what should happen with the statue.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass supports removing the statue. She was growing up in North Philly when Rizzo was mayor.
“The statue has always been a point of contention for people of color, I believe, in the city,” Bass said. “It’s always been a lightning rod for us. It coming down? I don’t have a problem with that all.”
Like Greenlee, Councilman Derek Green wanted to wait and hold public hearings before making a decision.
“If I’d been elected at that time I would not have been supportive (of the statue’s location),” he said. “I’d like to hear from people throughout the city on where they are about the statue.”
Billy Penn contacted the offices of 13 other City Council members. None of them have yet responded.
It’s obvious Rizzo has many fans. Last year’s petition to remove the statue was greeted by a counter petition. The Facebook group Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back pasted Gym’s tweet about Rizzo at mid-day today, and the post has already attracted more than 100 comments and been shared dozens of times. The post called for Gym to step down.
The statue is owned by the city but was paid for by the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee. According to the Mayor’s Office, the Art Commission would have to approve the statue’s removal. Art Commission chair Alan Greenberger said that while the Commission would have to approve any changes with the statue’s location, a proposal to have it moved or removed would need to come from the Mayor’s Office.
Thora Jacobson, chairwoman of the Arts Commission when the statue was installed and the current executive director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, first heard of the petition when Billy Penn spoke with her last summer. “Why would they want to take it down? Is it people don’t like Frank Rizzo?” she asked at the time. When she was told that some Philadelphians connect Rizzo’s legacy to racism and demagoguery, she said, “Oh, goodness, it’s not like he’s Donald Trump.”
There’s also a mural of Rizzo in the Italian Market. It was defaced this spring, and Mural Arts director Jane Golden said it gets vandalized more than any other mural.
Gym re-upped her position on the original tweet last night calling for the statue’s removal by saying, “Let’s do this.” But she stresses the process should — and will — take time.
“There needs to be tough conversations that we as a city should be having,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of them. We are going to have a public process to decide what we’re going to do about the statue.”