Protesters attacking the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

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Things often move slowly in Philly government, but not the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue. Controversy over the monument had been simmering for decades, but when the protest movement roared through in the summer of 2020, it was gone literally overnight.

The quickness with which its location in front of the Municipal Services Building became a gathering place as protests kicked into high gear was striking.

Part of that is because “energy is real” in the presence of public art, Philly artist Ursula Rucker tells “Movers & Makers” in the WHYY-TV show’s latest episode.

The statue commemorating the city’s former police commissioner and mayor drew both adoration and disgust from the moment it was unveiled in 1999. Still, after it was defaced in December 2019, a city spokesperson told Billy Penn the statue wouldn’t be moved until 2022.

Yet less than a year later, the towering bronze sculpture would be yanked from its location in Center City and unceremoniously tucked into undisclosed storage.

It was one of few immediate changes to come out of Philly’s involvement in the national protest movement that followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others.

The statue of the former police chief was removed for reasons of public safety, according to the administration of Mayor Jim Kenney, an irony that has sparked ongoing debates over what public safety entails, and the purpose of public art.

The Rizzo statue in 2019 Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Countdown to a rushed removal

The first days of rebellion in late May and early June demonstrate how energy can shift in the blink of an eye — and which compromises become feasible once it does.

Saturday, May 30, five days after George Floyd was murdered, was the first day of demonstrations in Philadelphia.

Around noon at City Hall, hundreds of protestors took a knee for nine minutes, in reference to the length of time Floyd suffered as he was killed. They then mostly dispersed, heading to another demonstration site at the Art Museum.

The fires started later: they were first reported at the intersection of Broad and Vine Street around 3 p.m., and were cited spreading at different locations in Center City not long after.

By 5 p.m., the Rizzo statue, just blocks away from the first gathering, was surrounded by protestors. Red paint was splattered on the face and hands of the sculpture. Ropes hung from its neck and arms, left by unsuccessful attempts to pull it down.

The monument wasn’t just a point of focus for the demonstrators — it was made a priority for people tasked with cleaning Center City the following morning. The paint was scrubbed off just hours after the 6 a.m. curfew was lifted.

Within 24 hours of the beginning of the protest, Mayor Kenney announced that the statue would be moved ahead of schedule, saying, “Hopefully by another month or so.”

Clashes between the police and demonstrators broke out again on Sunday. Tear gas started being used against crowds in West Philly, and property damage was reported in neighborhoods ranging from Nicetown to Port Richmond to Overbrook.

On Monday, Philly police tear-gassed peaceful protestors gathered on the Vine Street Expressway, trapping them on a hill in what became one of the most notorious examples of law enforcement response that summer. Later that night, counter protestors in Fishtown assaulted three people while police stood by. Events in Fishtown made fears of violence between civilians a reality, and led to days of sustained protest in the neighborhood.

The next day, on June 2, Mayor Kenney quietly issued an emergency order for the removal of the Rizzo statue. The document, which was not sent to press in advance, states that “the presence of the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building … has placed the building itself at risk of severe damage and looting.”

By the morning of June 3, Rizzo was gone, years ahead of schedule.

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

Monuments as constructs of power

The persistence of protest was the factor that hastened the statue’s removal, according to Philadelphia Chief Cultural Officer Kelly Lee, not just the early defacement with paint and fire.

Before 2020, the city’s reasoning for postponing its removal was to “try to not to be disruptive to this very public building,” Lee explained to “Movers & Makers,” referencing the constant flow of people in and out of MSB, which is home to many government offices and also the public center for paying your water bill.

The cost of taking out the statue, reportedly around $100,000, was also cited as a reason for delay.

Yet in the end, the quick, quiet removal that actually happened place showed the process could’ve been done without much disruption — other than protestors disrupting business as usual. Once Philadelphians brought their collective frustration and anger directly to the statue, the gears of City Hall kicked into overdrive.

“If you have the time, the money, and the power, you build a monument … that’s important to you,” said Paul Farber, a senior research scholar at UPenn’s Center for Public Art and Space, on “Movers & Makers.”

“But if you don’t have the time, the money, or the power, you gather next to a monument or a mural that exists to make your case known and amplify your voice.”

The people who gathered by the Rizzo statue on May 31 no doubt chose that site to illustrate a point — that its continued presence was a slap in the face to communities that experience police brutality.

Independent publisher Common Notions recently released “How We Stay Free: Notes on a Black Uprising,” an “anthology-in-action” on the 2020 protests in Philly, which includes one counter narrative that the protests amplified.

Malkia Okech, in a chapter on the material culture of the uprisings, described the statue as “a living symbol of the institution of policing and violence against Black Philadelphians,” calling its defacement “an ultimate metaphor of self-determination.”

Public art’s ability to convey historical significance explains why monuments have become such sites of struggle.

These struggles don’t always lean one way or the other. Just days after the Rizzo statue was removed, armed men gathered around the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, saying cultural preservation was their motive.

For Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer, these moments of controversy and discord are part of the dynamics of change.

“In 20 years from now … they can look back at some of the pieces that we’re commissioning now and say ‘That is offensive to me, that is inaccurate.’” Lee said. “History also reveals truths, right? Public art is good because you’re always reevaluated.”

For more on the “unmaking” of Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo statue, you can watch Episode 2 of this season’s “Movers & Makers” by WHYY-TV.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...