During weekend demonstrations over the brutal death of George Floyd, the bronze 3,000-pound colossus was tagged with the word “facist” (misspelled, though the meaning was clear), bathed in crimson paint, attacked with hammers andeventually protected by a phalanx of city police, armed with truncheons, Rizzo’s accessory of choice. He famously stuffed one down his tuxedo cummerbund to suggest that, while he could hobnob with swells, this avatar of brute force was never off-duty from the streets he ruled.
“The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long,” Mayor Jim Kenney (D), who ordered its removal, wrote in an Instagram post. “It is finally gone.”
The Rizzo likeness was one of several memorials that were vandalizedduring this week’s global protests. Many public statues erected to celebrate the perceived glories of the past are now emotional symbols of injustice and cruelty,and they have been expunged at a rapid rate over the last few years. By their very nature, statues are inanimate,often overlooked,usually altered only by natural elements. During this period of unrest, they are becoming vital canvases of political will.
In Richmond, a noose was coiled around the neck of the city’s statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Richmond’s massive depiction of Gen. Robert E. Lee astride his horse was slathered with graffiti reading “No More White Supremacy,” “Blood on Your Hands” and “Black Lives Matter.” On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) plans to announce that the Lee statue will be removed and placed in storage.
On Tuesday, perhaps in a preemptive strike against vandalism, the 131-year-old sculpture “Appomattox,” depicting a southern-facing Confederate soldier, was removed from an Alexandria, Va., intersection, a month earlier than planned.
Birmingham, Ala., demonstrators reportedly tried on Sunday to take down an obelisk honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors. The mayor ordered a crew to begin removing it Monday — the day Alabama this year observed a state holiday for Davis’s birthday, which is June 3. Other statues were vandalized in Montgomery and Mobile in Alabama and in Nashville.
In Belgium, a hood stained red to symbolize blood shrouded the head of a King Leopold II memorial in Ghent, spray-painted with the words “I can’t breathe,” among Floyd’s final pleas to the police. This week, a petition circulated to remove all Brussels monuments honoring the colonial monarch, who sanctioned the murders of more than a million Congolese.
Like most statues, the Rizzo commemoration was larger than life — Rizzo was tall, 6-foot-2, but not that tall — and dwarfed detractors and the occasional admirer alike. That was the commission’s intent, to indelibly raise the subject’s legacy above that of common folk. We’re forced to look up and hold it, literally, in higher regard.
The statue was erected on Thomas Paine Plaza — an irony there — in 1999, eight years after the former mayor’s death. It was an antiquated reminder of an uglypast many Philadelphians would prefer to forget, a fist in the face of African Americans and gays whom Rizzo spent much of his career trying to oppress. It did not help that the statue depicted Rizzo raising his right arm Mussolini-like in what looked like a fascist salute. (It was actually from a St. Patrick’s Day parade photo where he was waving, which was lost on almost all.)
“I’m asking white people and blacks who think like me to vote like Frank Rizzo,” he said in 1978. “I say vote white.”
As for the artist who created the sculpture? “I’m relieved,” Philadelphia-area sculptor Zenos Frudakis says of the statue’s removal. “I’m a human being first. I don’t want to see people hurt. I don’t want to see them killed or crushed if the statue toppled over.”
Frudakis, who describes his politics “as being to the left of Bernie Sanders” and has created statues of Frederick Douglass and Nina Simone, says the removal is justified if it makes people less enraged. “It’s important to minimize the suffering in the world.”
But statues, he says, are merely symbols. They tend to be among the first things to go after the removal of dictators and regime change, like the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, but he feels they aren’t key to enacting enduring change. He would like to eventually see the Rizzo statue installed elsewhere, perhaps a quiet park.
“People will attack the map, not the territory,” Frudakis says. “There’s a lot of anger and frustration, and this is how to strike at an enemy. But the real territory is voting and changing people’s lives for the better.”
Harriet F. Senie, an art history professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and an authority on public art, notes that while Confederate statues are particularly glaring, others go unnoticed. Many of us walk by without considering the subject’s complicated legacy.
She points out that a statue of J. Marion Sims, credited as the father of modern gynecology, stood in New York’s Central Park for decades until his painful experimental surgery on enslaved African American women without anesthesia was given greater attention. It was removed in 2018. “Most of our statues are invisible,” she says.
Someactivists are trying to make public symbols more visible. Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War,” a dreadlocked African American man triumphant upon his horse, was installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in December as an artistic see-and-raise-you to that city’s Lee memorial. With Northam’s announcement, Wiley’s response will soon be the only one standing.
At a Wednesday morning news conference in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney touted the Rizzo statue’s removal as a part of “the beginning of the healing process in our city.” But as he gesturedto the empty space where the statue recently presided, he acknowledged, “This is not the end.” Its removal, he said, “is not the be-all and end-all of where we need to go.”
Correction: A quote that was attributed to Rizzo was removed from this story because its source is uncertain.