The monument was dismantled overnight in June 2020 Credit: Twitter / @PhillyMayor

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The unyielding peaceful protests drawing thousands to nearly every corner of Philadelphia each day over the past week are an unavoidable sign that the city is crying out for change. It’ll take months, and years to dismantle centuries of institutional bias, but there’s now a tangible symbol of the transformation many hope to see:

The Frank Rizzo statue is gone.

In an overnight coup, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration dismantled the bronze sculpture that’s stood prominently in Center City since 1999. It was lifted out of its bolts just before 6 a.m., and dragged off via crane to be placed in secure storage until a plan is developed.

“Immediate removal of the statue is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of Philadelphians and city employees,” reads an order signed by the mayor Tuesday, “and is in the best interest of the city.”

Kenney called the choice not to remove the figure sooner “a mistake,” and pledged to work toward healing the community.

“The continued display of the statue has understandably enraged and hurt many Philadelphians, including those protesting the heinous murders of George Floyd and too many others,” Kenney said in a statement. “I have seen and heard their anguish. This statue now no longer stands in front of a building that serves all Philadelphians.”

Rizzo, a former Philly police commissioner and mayor from 1972 through 1990, is known for his use of violence and tough-on-crime legacy supported by brutal policing tactics.

His statue outside the Municipal Services Building has been the subject of multiple protests over the years, and was targeted in recent days — with attempts “to demolish, light on fire, excavate, smash, break and topple” it, as described in the mayor’s order.

A massive, protective police presence around the reviled icon followed those attempts, outraging many who felt it was a waste of resources.

Use of force has become an issue for the current Philadelphia Police Department. Following unexplained use of tear gas on protesters Monday, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw on Tuesday issued a memo requiring officers to report all use of force live on their radios, rather than as procedural paperwork after the fact.

The need to deploy guards at the statue was cited as a reason for its removal.

The order signed by Kenney on June 2 notes that Rizzo’s placement made MSB a potential target of vandalism, and describes how the “significant” police resources it took to protect the building could be diverted to more useful purposes.

It also cites the ongoing state of emergency in the city, brought on by the dual punches of a pandemic health crisis and widespread civil unrest.

“The statue is a deplorable monument to racism, bigotry, and police brutality for members of the Black community, the LGBTQ community, and many others,” the mayor said. “The treatment of these communities under Mr. Rizzo’s leadership was among the worst periods in Philadelphia’s history.”

Kenney had first promised to move the statue to a new location back in 2017, when a call to take down still-standing confederate monuments swept the nation. But the city never specified a new location, and eventually postponed the move.

A timeline of sorts emerged last December. Kenney said he wanted to tie the removal with a planned revocation of Thomas Paine Plaza, the area outside MSB. A city spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn that might not happen until 2022.

This week, in the first days of the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, Kenney switched course, promising it would be moved “within six months.”

Now, Rizzo is gone.

The statue will be kept in storage until a plan is developed “to donate, relocate or otherwise dispose of it,” per the order. The city Art Commission will have to sign off on any final plan for its use.

Said Kenney, “We now need to work for true equity for all Philadelphia residents, and toward healing our communities. The removal of this statue today is but a small step in that process.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.