The long-controversial statue of former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo has become a flashpoint for debate after the recent chaos in Charlottesville.
On Thursday night, the words “black power” were tagged on the Rizzo statue in spraypaint by someone who managed to slip past the statue’s new protective fencing and police escort. It was the focus of a nightlong vigil protest Wednesday night by activists who demanded the statue’s removal Wednesday, and earlier that day was egged by a 25-year-old New Jersey man who was arrested.
But as of Friday, Rizzo still stood.
The words “Black Power” were written in white spraypaint on the statue, with “The Black community should be their own Police” written on the steps of the Municipal Services Building outside which Rizzo stands, eternally waving hello.
Police said the offender struck at 11:06 p.m., then returned to their car. A suspect has been apprehended but not yet formally charged. Fox29 cameras on-site caught the vandalism in action:
— FOX 29 (@FOX29philly) August 18, 2017
The incident followed days of escalating tension over the statue as nationwide symbols associated with the white nationalist movement, specifically Confederate statues and memorials, which have led Philly residents and politicians to question the ongoing presence of a tribute to Rizzo.
“I think it’s time for it to go,” said Sabrina Nutter, 37, of West Philly, as she waited by the bus stop under Rizzo’s statute on Thursday. “It’s a constant reminder for people who were brutalized and suffered under his regime. They were like a mob.”
She said she’s heard numerous stories of black men suffering abuse by officers in the 70s searching for members of the Black Panthers or Junior Black Mafia: “It was, take this beating, or go to jail.” Compared to other statues around town, Rizzo’s is offensive, she said. “You look at this, and you look at that,” pointing from Rizzo’s statue to the figure of Philadelphia founder William Penn atop City Hall, “and it’s just like a contradiction.”
The violence in Charlottesville and death of an anti-racist protester stemmed from a demonstration against the removal of a statue commemorating Gen. Robert E. Lee (who, ironically, said no statues should be erected to the Confederacy nor flags still hung in its memory after it surrendered in 1865).
Rizzo has long had a reputation for ordering the unfair treatment of African American Philadelphians, due to incidents such as while serving as police commissioner, ordering officers to assault black students demonstrating outside the Board of Education, along with many others. Defenders say Rizzo’s law-and-order approach saved Philly from violence other cities saw, and argue that he was not a bigot, saying he brought more African Americans into the police department than any other city of that era.
But City Councilwoman Helen Gym rebooted the conversation of whether to remove the Rizzo statue with a tweet after Charlottesville, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s office indicated it is open to such a conversation. Gym’s social media accounts have since been targeted with obscene racist insults and vitriolic criticism from self-identified Rizzo supporters.
Despite protesters cursing at the statue for hours, no arrests were reported Wednesday night. The only related arrest was of a 25-year-old Maplewood, New Jersey man who threw eggs at the statue on Wednesday afternoon.
There is currently no timeline for the statue’s removal, but pressure continues to build. On Thursday afternoon, Robert Shine, head of the Greater Philadelphia Clergy Union, called for the statue’s removal, referring to the racist aspect of Rizzo’s legacy, “what he permitted and allowed and the many things he himself participated in.”
“It is time now that we move forward,” Shine said, “and begin to dismantle… all of those symbols of the past that ought to be long forgotten, erased from history.”