PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An anti-police brutality group wants Philadelphia to remove a statue of Frank Rizzo, the blunt and charismatic officer-turned-mayor who was at once loved and loathed during his decades reigning over the city. The current mayor said he’s open to a discussion on the location of the statue.
An online petition, launched this month by the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, contends Rizzo was “an unrepentant racist who stopped at nothing to torture and hold Philadelphia’s African-American community as his personal hostages.”
“We want to see a statue that empowers the black and brown community instead of us having to be constantly reminded of racist attacks and our plight here in Philadelphia,” organizer Erica Mines said.
The bronze statue, unveiled in 1999, depicts Rizzo bounding down the steps of the Municipal Services Building. It was donated to the city.
Philadelphia has long tried to reconcile the complicated legacy of Rizzo, who served as mayor from 1972 to 1980 and who died of a heart attack in 1991 amid a City Hall comeback bid. His friends, family and fans remember him as a devoted public servant unafraid to speak his mind. His detractors saw his police force as corrupt and brutal and said Rizzo alienated minorities both as police commissioner and mayor.
The petition’s allegations are “complete nonsense,” Rizzo’s grandson Joe Mastronardo said Wednesday.
“He was always friends with black people,” Mastronardo said. “His two bodyguards were black and very tough guys. I don’t think they would have protected this man if he was a racist.”
Mastronardo said his grandfather’s hard-nosed rule and tough police tactics were products of the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.
Rizzo became commissioner in 1967, memorably showing up at a black-tie affair with a nightstick tucked into his tuxedo cummerbund. He served two terms as mayor as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.
His four-year stint as commissioner was marked by praise for crime-fighting and criticism for rights infringement and was punctuated by some confrontations with African-Americans. In 1967, Rizzo and the police confronted a few hundred black students protesting outside the Board of Education Building. Officers clubbed some of the students after a few climbed atop cars. In 1970, two groups affiliated with the Black Panthers were raided and strip-searched on the sidewalk.
Yet he’s also credited with hiring large numbers of African-American officers and promoting several black officers during his stint as commissioner.
Karen M. Turner, now an associate professor at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, remembers being afraid to come to Philadelphia as a black girl growing up in New Jersey during Rizzo’s reign because of the police brutality stories.
“I’m surprised it took so long,” she said about the petition to remove the statue. “But this is something young people are doing now: delving into the public expression of our history and asking, ‘Is it accurate?'”
Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney said the city will consider meeting with the anti-police brutality group over the statue.
“I’m happy to have a dialogue about the future of Rizzo’s likeness in relation to its location, but that dialogue won’t be started and finished over a few days,” Kenney said.
Mines said her group is encouraged by Kenney’s response but added that “just placing it somewhere else won’t be end of it.”
The city is working on a statue and sculpture of Octavius V. Catto, a black Philadelphia activist called “the Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th century.” Mines said that’s just a start.
“How can one statue be enough?” she said “There can never be enough, when you think about the African-American experience here in Philadelphia.”
City Council President Darrell Clarke, who is black, said the conversation about Rizzo’s statue is healthy because it opens the door to look at the past and learn from it.
“The challenges our city faces — whether poverty, education, or housing inequality — can only be understood and resolved by studying our history, including and especially our warts, ” he said.
To Mastronardo, Kenney’s offer to meet with the group about his grandfather’s statue is “gutless.”
“My grandfather did more for this city than almost anyone in history,” Mastronardo said. “He gave his life to this city.”
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