George Floyd protests

Kenney’s curfew echoes Rizzo-led protest shutdown in 1964

Back then, mayors had to invoke state law to keep residents inside.

Protesters assault the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB. It was removed shortly thereafter.

Protesters assault the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB. It was removed shortly thereafter.

Emma Lee / WHYY
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As the protests over police violence in Philadelphia that started on Saturday stretched out over multiple days, Mayor Jim Kenney continued to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew each night.

The curfew was first implemented at 8 p.m. on Saturday, with all city residents required to stay inside through 6 a.m. the next morning except for “essential duties.” The next two nights, the start time was moved up to 6 p.m. so the mandate was in effect a full 12 hours each day.

As of Monday afternoon, 429 people had been arrested, according to Philly police. Among them, 267 were for code violation notices, which can include citations for breaking curfew.

What gave Kenney the right to call a citywide curfew in the first place?

The executive power is thanks to a municipal ordinance passed in 1967, called the “state of emergency” provision. It gives the mayor the right to “establish a curfew limiting the hours when persons may go upon or travel the public streets.”

Before that, a city leader had to invoke state law to enact a curfew. That’s what happened in 1964, when Black residents came together to protest racism and housing discrimination in North Philly — and a deputy police commissioner by the name of Frank Rizzo.

Rizzo, who would eventually become Philly police commissioner and mayor, is known for his use of violence. His statue outside the Municipal Services Building has been controversial, and over the past few days was the subject of protest, graffiti and flames, followed by a massive, protective police presence.

Here’s a look at what happened leading to Philadelphia’s curfew a half-century ago.

Housing discrimination is rampant

Housing discrimination was rampant in early-1960s Philly. Real estate companies and white residents perpetuated the belief that Black families moving in would lower their property values — and worked to keep them out.

In the year 1960 alone, there are at least six documented incidents of white families forcing out people of color through intimidation, historian Timothy Lombardo writes in his book “Blue Collar Conservativism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics.”

One of those hounded out was Jose Fernandez, who leased a second-floor Fishtown apartment with his family — then fled in fear after neighbors stoned the property for three days straight.

Newer Northeast Philly neighborhoods where housing was just being built, such as Morrell Park and Bridesburg, were full-on redlined, meaning families of color were systematically excluded from living there.

Many of the existing blue-collar neighborhoods also proved hostile for Black families. White residents even blocked the Philadelphia Housing Authority from setting up public housing in their neighborhoods.

Combined with other civil rights movements across the U.S., the situation brought Black Philadelphians to a breaking point in 1964.

A 24-hour curfew and two people killed

It was a Friday in late August when two Philly police officers responded to a report of a stalled vehicle at 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue.

When they got there, a man and woman were inside the car, and police tried to forcibly remove the woman. Even without cell phone video to spur a reaction, the events escalated into a days-long protest that stretched an entire block to Ridge Avenue. Crowds were throwing bottles at police and some people began breaking into nearby stores.

Mayor James Tate rushed back from his Jersey shore vacation home, and Police Commissioner Howard Leary took the reins. Commissioner Leary’s plan: prioritize containing the protest to a few geographic blocks, and then pivot to address the looting.

Leary’s deputy commissioner hated that idea. He later said it was the closest he ever came to defying direct orders. That guy’s name? Frank Rizzo.

Rizzo took the lead in combating the protest. He refused to work from the control center Leary had organized near Temple University. Instead, he deployed 1,500 officers and set off to personally patrol Columbia Avenue on foot.

The next day, Mayor Tate invoked state law and established a 24-hour curfew for a 400-square-block area of North Philly. That was a Saturday. By Monday, people had dispersed.

The August 1964 protests saw two people killed and 339 wounded — 100 of them Philly police officers. There were 308 arrests on just a few city blocks, 78 of them for breaking curfew.

Rizzo became police commissioner just three years later. Then Rizzo ran for mayor, advertising an intense law-and-order platform. He was elected in 1972, winning by a narrow margin over Republican challenger and City Councilmember Thacher Longstreth.