After a Confederate statue was torn down in Durham, N.C., this week and others were pulled from their pedestals in Baltimore, civil rights advocates in Philadelphia asked: Why not here?
Of course, the City of Brotherly Love has no great Confederate legacy, and there are no memorials to Confederate generals or rebel soldiers in its public squares.
But there is a big, hulking bronze statue of the late Frank Rizzo, looming 10 feet tall, right in front of the downtown civic center. And though he’s been dead for 26 years, plenty of African Americans still hate his guts.
Rizzo served as Philadelphia’s police commissioner and mayor in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time he was known for his defense of the white working class and his harsh, often brutal treatment of the city’s black and gay communities. He was like a Joe Arpaio of eastern Pennsylvania — a tough-talking, unapologetic rogue who imposed his version of law and order with fervor.
A growing group of activists, political leaders and others are calling for the statue of Rizzo to be hauled away after white supremacists converged on Charlottesville to demonstrate against the pending removal of a memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The so-called Unite the Right rally turned violent last weekend, leaving one counterprotester dead and others injured. In the days since, people outraged by the racist chants, Nazi regalia and hate-fueled bloodshed have declared open season on the country’s Confederate monuments, saying they legitimize white supremacists.
In Philadelphia, that push now extends to a more contemporary figure whose legacy many people in the city witnessed firsthand.
Late Thursday night, someone scrawled “Black Power” in spray paint on the Rizzo statue. The day before, a New Jersey man was arrested after he pelted Rizzo’s bronze likeness with eggs. Earlier in the week, police erected metal barricades and posted guards around the statue after protesters encircled it chanting “tear it down.” The added security wasn’t enough to stop the vandals.
The effort to remove Rizzo’s statue has been underway for more than a year, but it got a boost Monday when City Councilwoman Helen Gym tweeted that it needed to go.
“All around the country, we’re fighting to remove the monuments to slavery and racism,” Gym wrote. “Philly, we have work to do. Take the Rizzo statue down.”
Shortly after, Mayor Jim Kenney signaled he was open to the idea.
“We think now is a good time to have that conversation about the statue’s future,” Kenney said in a statement Tuesday. “We need to figure out the proper forum for that conversation in a serious, structured way, but now is the right time.”
Rizzo, who died in 1991 at age 70, was both literally and figuratively larger-than-life, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 240 pounds. Born to an Italian immigrant family, he dropped out of high school and joined the police force in his early 20s. He became police chief in 1967 and served as mayor from 1972 to 1980.
There has hardly been a more polarizing figure in Philadelphia’s history.
“Dispassionate conversation about Frank Rizzo is impossible,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky wrote.
Rizzo’s detractors say he terrorized blacks and gays during his tenure. They point to a long list of grievances. He used the n-word and anti-gay slurs casually. He led late-night raids on gay establishments that rarely resulted in charges. He sicced dogs on black student protesters, and in one notorious incident had his officers order Black Panthers to strip naked in the street during a mass arrest.
Throughout his time in office, “blacks regularly complained that they were being cheated of services and outright repression,” the New York Times wrote in his obituary. Critics accused him of using “tactics bordering on the dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods,” the obituary read.
But his defenders say his iron hand as police commissioner and law-and-order focus in city hall helped contain crime in Philadelphia at a time when it was rising in other major cities, the Times noted.
As the Philadelphia’s first Italian American mayor, he was a hero to the city’s large Italian community, and many working-class whites came to view him as a champion of their rights. In 1978, when he announced he wouldn’t seek a third term in office, Rizzo vowed to “defend the rights” of whites, who he said had been “kicked around too long.”
He told the Times that year: “When blacks say something, it’s to help their people. When the whites get together and ask for something they’re racist. Now where’s the fairness here? I’m tired of hearing that.”
Rizzo’s defenders insist he wasn’t a bigot. Bykofsky, the Daily News columnist, noted that he had black guards in his security detail and counted the civil rights activist Novella Williams among his supporters. “These things get overlooked because of his actual problems with segments of the black community, often because of members of his police force,” Bykofsky wrote.
The statue of Rizzo has been the subject of protest and controversy since it was erected in front of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building downtown in 1998.
“The statue has always been a point of contention for people of color,” Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who grew up in North Philadelphia during Rizzo’s tenure as mayor, told the local website Billy Penn. “It’s always been a lightening rod for us.”
Last August, Black Lives Matter activists protested in front of the statue and called for it to be taken down. They carried signs that read “Rizzo the Racist” and “lest we forget.” At one point, someone draped a Ku Klux Klan hood over Rizzo’s head.
When images of the demonstration circulated on social media, Rizzo’s grandson, Joe Mastronardo, called a PhillyVoice reporter who was covering the scene and asked to speak with Asa Khalif, one of the organizers. Here’s how PhillyVoice described the interaction:
Suffice it to say, it was not a friendly conversation.
“It was a whole bunch of threats, like the M.O. of his grandfather. He grew up at the feet of his grandfather, he grew up with that kind of bullying, brutality and hateful speech,” Khalif said after the conversation. “I didn’t expect anything different.”
For his part, Mastronardo said that day that protesters are “not moving a g— d—– thing.”
Flash forward almost exactly a year to the day later, and Khalif says he’s ready to tear the statue down himself if city leaders don’t act.
“Get it off city property. Put it in a museum. Put it at his son’s house,” he told PhillyVoice. “Just get it the f— out of plain view.”
Rizzo’s grandson responded to the threat to topple the statue by calling Black Lives Matter a “domestic radical terrorist group.”
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” he said.
The city owns the statue, but it was funded and presented as a gift by the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee, which includes Rizzo’s family members, friends and supporters. It was created by artist Zenos Frudakis, who is known for his sculptures of major historical and cultural figures.
The statue can’t be removed or relocated without a formal proposal from the mayor’s office, and the Philadelphia Art Commission would have to approve the decision, according to Billy Penn.
Thousands of people have signed a petition to keep the statue in place, as CBS Philly reported this week. The petition was created by Marc Ferguson, administrator of a Facebook page popular among locals called “Taking our South Philadelphia Streets back.”
“It’s about principle,” Ferguson said. “There’s so much going on in this country right now, there’s so many divided relations. This is not a symbol of hate.”
But even Ferguson is open to the possibility of relocating the statue. He proposed putting it at the city’s Italian market downtown, where there’s a giant painted mural of Rizzo. “There’s all kinds of options,” he told CBS Philly.
Gym, the councilwoman who first called for the statue’s removal, said she would introduce a measure to take it down when the council reconvenes in September.
“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,” Gym told Billy Penn. “Philadelphia doesn’t get a pass just because we weren’t part of the of the Confederacy.”
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