After years of vandalism and calls for its removal, the hulking statue of Philadelphia’s late mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was removed Tuesday by the city. Rizzo’s political career and heavy-handed police tactics in the late 1960s and ’70s were seen as racially polarizing and unfairly targeted minorities and people of color.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who ordered the statue’s removal late Tuesday night, called it a “deplorable monument to racism, bigotry, and police brutality for members of the Black community, the LGBTQ community, and many others.”
“The treatment of these communities under Mr. Rizzo’s leadership was among the worst periods in Philadelphia’s history,” Kenney said in a statement. “The battle for equal rights and justice is still being fought decades later, and our city is still working to erase that legacy.”
The massive 9-foot bronze statue, which depicted the former two-term mayor waving from the steps of the city’s Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, had been defaced during recent protests over the death of Black Minnesota man George Floyd, who died while in police custody.
Photos of the statue prior to its removal showed it covered in red and white paint, with “FTP” (short for “fuck the police”) written on its chest.
The statue was a gift to the city from Rizzo’s family, friends and supporters in 1998, according to the Association for Public Art. His supporters credited him with being tough on crime and bolstering working-class citizens.
But in recent years it had become a regular target of vandalism, with people pelting it with eggs and spray-painting it. This followed Rizzo’s reputation of deploying excessive use of force through the city’s police department. His targets included political critics, gay clubs and Black revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers and MOVE, whose members he once called “criminals” and “barbarians.”
“Break their heads is right. They try to break yours, you break theirs first,” he once said of MOVE’s members, according to The Guardian.
He also faced a number of lawsuits and complaints of alleged abuse, harassment and discrimination during his years as police commissioner and mayor. In 1979, the Justice Department filed a civil suit against Rizzo, the city of Philadelphia, and 18 top city and police officials that charged them with condoning systematic police brutality. The excessive force used by the city’s police force “shocks the conscience,” the suit said, which Rizzo disputed.
The suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds and because of a lack of specific information to support the charges, The New York Times reported.
During one of his failed bids for a third term in office, Rizzo urged supporters to “Vote white,” according to The New York Times.
In 2017, Kenney declared Rizzo’s statue “offensive” ― particularly to Blacks and other people of color ― and announced plans to take it down, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported. Those plans were continually placed on the back burner, however, and last December the city said it wouldn’t be moved until early 2022.
Kenney’s office on Wednesday said the delay in moving the statue was due to money concerns, which “was a mistake.” The statue will be placed in storage by the Department of Public Property “until a plan is developed to donate, relocate, or otherwise dispose of it.”
Rizzo’s son, former Philadelphia Councilmember Frank Rizzo Jr., defended his father’s legacy in an interview this week with Talk Radio 1210 WPHT. He called Kenney’s attack on his late father’s statue a “personal vendetta.”
“My father never liked him, ... and Kenney never liked my father, and this is personal. He’s in a position now to use his power, and he’s going to use it inappropriately,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo defended his father’s record, calling him a protector of Philadelphia’s citizens and police force.
“His whole life was helping people, and I can tell you that when he had to take on certain elements in the city, mostly the criminal elements in the city, they tried to spin that as racism,” Rizzo said of his father’s critics. He cited his father’s use of Black bodyguards as proof that he was not racist.