PHILADELPHIA — In the wake of the violence that racked Charlottesville last week — ostensibly over the fate of a Confederate monument — Americans are looking at public works in their hometowns with more scrutiny. While Philadelphia is not home to any Confederate monuments, one statue attracting criticism is the statue of former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, situated across from City Hall at the towering Municipal Services Building.
Rizzo descends the wide steps of the Municipal Building, raising his arm in a wave. He presides over the stark International Style building, home to many of the city’s most tedious bureaucratic offices, and the broad, somewhat neglected Thomas Paine plaza, which smells faintly of urine. The plaza is prominent, however, and hosts a gigantic, bronze, inverted pyramid of writhing, twisted bodies by Jacques Lipchitz called “Government of the People.” Another sculpture, “Your Move,” by artists Daniel Martinez, Renee Petropoulos, and Roger White, presents a series of giant board game pieces — perhaps a cheeky commentary on the Kafkaesque hours of forms and waiting occurring inside the building. And then there’s Rizzo. Ten feet tall, in an oversized suit jacket, his extended arm reaches toward City Hall. His face is stern but serene, like that of a benevolent dictator.
Just last week, the Rizzo statue was put behind barriers and guarded by police. It was egged on Wednesday, and then on Friday, tagged with the message “Black Power.” Like the Confederate monuments, the sculpture of Rizzo is salt in an open wound for many of the city’s residents of color. Frank Rizzo served two terms as Mayor from 1972–1980, and ran for a third term on a “vote white” campaign, vowing to fight for the rights of the city’s “ethnic” white communities, such as the Italian, Polish, and Irish Americans that made up his voting bloc — all amid allegations of voter fraud in predominantly black neighborhoods. When he lost that effort, he described his new public career as a “Defender of White Rights.” He is best remembered as a “law and order” mayor, widely known for his vicious crackdowns on activists.
As Police Commissioner, Rizzo frequently harassed the Black Panthers, culminating in a raid on their headquarters that ended in a public strip search in front of the media. According to media reports, which Rizzo denied, he ordered his police force to attack a group of students demonstrating at the Board of Education to have it approve a curriculum that included Black History. The brutal beatings of unarmed teenagers were described as a “police riot” by local newspapers — one student was left lying in a pool of his own blood with splintered fragments of a nightstick around him. The event triggered a federal indictment against 12 Philadelphia Police, which Rizzo said was a “liberal leftist” plot against the Police Department. He is reported to have used the n-word casually in conversation, and regularly personally headed up police raids of activist clubs, gay bars, cafés, and coffee houses, making arrests under the pretense of drug activity, though indictments rarely followed.
A plaque to the side of the sculpture takes pains to make clear that the city did not commission the sculpture, erected in 1998, and that it was created and donated with funds raised by Rizzo’s family and friends. It describes him as a “controversial” figure. Black Lives Matter Philly has led the charge to take the statue down, reviving a year-old online campaign to have the statue removed, backed by City Councilwoman Helen Gym. Gym told Philly Voice, “Statues and memorials are not about leaving a path frozen in time. It’s about who we choose to honor and what values we seek to project today… It’s time to have these conversations. We’re going to embark on a public process, and there are a number of agencies that can be the vehicle for that. I’d like it to be an effort that unifies people, confronts racism and the wounds of racism that are deeply embedded in Philadelphia’s past.” Present Mayor Jim Kenney agrees that “now is the right time” to discuss removing the statue. Black Lives Matter activists have stated that if the city doesn’t act, they will take matters into their own hands. Gym and Kenney have called for legal avenues to be explored, and since then, Gym, who is Korean American, has received numerous violent, racist threats.
On Monday afternoon, Philly REAL Justice organized a rally to support the removal of the statue. It had originally been planned as a counter-protest by supporters of the Rizzo sculpture, but they cancelled after city officials were in conversation with them regarding the sculpture’s fate, citing concerns the protest could turn violent. Mayor Kenney offered them assurances that the statue “wasn’t coming down at 3 o’clock in the morning, one night.”
On Tuesday, Kenney announced that the statue will be reviewed by the Arts Commission, though that may not be soon enough for activists. At the Monday rally, speaker Mark Tingleman of RefuseFascism.org said, “The fact that people are going after the Frank Rizzo statue right here at this moment, that they are going after Confederate statues, is really prescient because what’s happening now with Donald Trump is that for the first time, every strain of American fascism is coming together under his banner. Right now we have a situation where American fascism is being consolidated, and what needs to happen is Trump, Pence, the whole regime, need to be driven from office.”
Across town in his native South Philadelphia, Rizzo also looms large. Literally. His face is plastered on a building in the touristy Italian Market, gloomily staring across a parking lot and down 9th Street. The mural, by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, is itself no great work of art, with Rizzo clumsily depicted in cartoonish proportions. It also holds the distinction of being the most vandalized mural in the city.
During the DNC in Philadelphia this past spring, it was tagged “Fuck Racist Pigs. End Cops 4eva,” and before that, in 2012, “FASCISTA” was scrawled across Rizzo’s chest. Mural Arts Director Jane Golden defended the mural as recently as this past May, after it was vandalized, saying, “It’s very frustrating, and not funny. Please, whoever you are, stop doing this! We’re just nice people trying to save the world through art.” However, as of last Thursday, Golden had changed her tune, writing a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer which cited the events of Charlottesville, and said, “Now is the time for a public conversation about the Rizzo mural.” Early Saturday morning the mural was again defaced with white paint splashed across Rizzo’s enormous face, and the words “Kill killer cops” and “RIP David” underneath — likely a reference to David Thomas Jones, a 30-year-old North Philadelphia man shot and killed by police in June, whose name was graffitied across the mural two months ago.
Defenders of Rizzo in the city’s whitest enclaves frequently cite that he made the city safer — but safer for whom? Conversely, by the end of Rizzo’s term as Mayor, the murder rate in Philadelphia had actually risen to a higher rate than when he came into office and police shootings had surged.
The Lipchitz sculpture “Government of the People,” situated next to Rizzo on Thomas Paine plaza, serves to illustrate government for what it should be — a tangle of entwined peoples, representing the multifarious ideologies that make up democracy. The work suggests the struggle and power of communities not founded on rhetoric of division and fear, but on inclusion and unity. Lipchitz himself had escaped the fascist Nazi regime, and the work demonstrates a reverence for democracy as the voice of the many, not the few. Ironically, Rizzo despised the Lipchitz sculpture and attempted to block it from being erected during his tenure as mayor, comparing it to a pile of dumped plaster. This fascinating public work stands for everything the monuments to the divisive former mayor do not.
Not all men deserve monuments, and one man’s proud accomplishments do not deserve a prominent laudatory place in our city if they happen to have come at the detriment of nearly half the city’s population. History is important to remember, but not all histories should be publicly celebrated. Removing the statue is not an abandonment of that history, but rather a reckoning of why we ever found these racially motivated acts of intimidation and violence acceptable. Rizzo’s transgressions are not simply mistakes in the life of an otherwise great man. These are defining moments of pain and horror in the lives of others. Frank Rizzo was the face of state-sponsored racism and police brutality in Philadelphia’s struggle for equal rights. It’s time for the Rizzo statue and mural to go.
Update, 8/24/17: In light of the public outcry over the Frank Rizzo statue, the Office of the Mayor has put out an open call for ideas for the statue’s future. The deadline to submit is Friday, September 15, 5pm.