Workers removed a statue of Philadelphia’s controversial former Mayor Frank Rizzo from its place of honor across from City Hall early Wednesday morning, finishing a job that protesters attempted to accomplish during recent demonstrations against police brutality.
In the 1970s, Rizzo famously told Philadelphia voters to “vote white.” But on Wednesday, the City of Brotherly Love took down a memorial to a man who exploited its divisions.
For many Philadelphians, the larger-than-life statue of Rizzo, who also was police commissioner, was an overt symbol of white police officers’ brutal treatment of black people and other minorities.
“The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long. It is finally gone,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday as he posted a photo of the empty spot where the large statue once stood.
Because of Rizzo’s legacy of brash intolerance, the statue has been a focal point in Philadelphia’s protests over the deaths of black people — most recently, of George Floyd in Minneapolis; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.; and Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Ga. Protesters attacked the statue over the weekend, defacing it with paint, setting it on fire and using ropes to try to bring it down.
The latest demonstrations prompted the city to accelerate its plans to remove the statue, which were discussed as early as 2017.
NPR member station WHYY described the scene Wednesday morning:
“As National Guard troops deployed in the wake of recent protests watched, a crane lifted the 10-foot-tall bronze statue and workers shook it from its stand outside the Municipal Services Building, across from City Hall. It was loaded onto the back of a truck.”
Rizzo died in 1991. But he has loomed large in Philadelphia because of his use of violence during and after the civil rights era. He set the tone immediately after becoming police commissioner in 1967 as officers set upon thousands of high school students who were demonstrating at the Board of Education. Some witnesses quoted Rizzo saying, “Get their black asses!”
As NPR’s Gene Demby, a Philadelphia native, has written of Rizzo:
“For a lot of black Philadelphians of a certain vintage like my mother, the swaggering, profanity-spewing Rizzo, the city’s former police commissioner, was the face and soul of Philadelphia’s brutal, aggressive police force. My mom recounted to me the time he arrested a group of Black Panthers, strip-searched them in public, and invited the press to cover the whole ordeal; photos of the naked, humiliated men were splashed across the pages of the local papers the next day.”
Rizzo’s tenure as commissioner propelled him to the mayor’s office – where he promised to be tougher than Attila the Hun.
During Rizzo’s time as Philadelphia’s mayor from 1972 to 1980, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city’s police department, saying officers’ use of excessive force “shocks the conscience.”