President Donald Trump attempted to defend the use of a racist phrase aimed toward protesters by citing former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whose tenure was marked by brutality aimed at black communities.
During an interview on Fox News with Harris Faulkner in Dallas on Thursday, Trump defended the use of the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts" by incorrectly attributing it to Rizzo. Faulkner corrected the president, telling him the phrase was said by former Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who used it to threaten civil rights protesters during a 1967 news conference. “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality," Headley famously added.
“Well, it also comes from a very tough mayor, who might have been police commissioner at the time, but I think mayor of Philadelphia, named Frank Rizzo. And he had an expression like that,” Trump said.
While there’s no record of Rizzo saying that phrase, he did tell Esquire in a 1968 interview: “The man to go after is the one that shouts ‘Burn!’ or ‘Loot!’ He has to be taken on, and taken on good, and put right in short pants.”
“If you looked up racism and brutality in the dictionary, you’d find Frank Rizzo’s picture. He brutalized his citizens, particularly his citizens of color, and he celebrated that,” David Axelrod, former chief strategist for Barack Obama, said on CNN Thursday night. Trump “could not have invoked a worse symbol than Frank Rizzo, who is exactly what America is saying we need to leave in the past.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
On June 3, Philadelphia removed the statue of Rizzo from outside the Municipal Services Building following massive protests in which it was targeted by demonstrators. A mural of Rizzo in the Italian Market was painted over on Sunday. The Police Athletic League of Philadelphia removed Rizzo’s name from its community center in Port Richmond, saying it wants “to ensure all children and families feel welcome.”
It’s not the first time Trump has invited comparisons to the former Philadelphia mayor. The president’s “law and order” messaging in response to protests echos Rizzo’s policing philosophy, which he summed up in blunt terms: “The way to treat criminals is spacco il capo,” he said while police commissioner, using the Italian for “break their heads.”
Rizzo "did have a kind of passionate fringe of people that could be readily identified,” W. Wilson Goode Sr., Philadelphia’s first black mayor, told the New York Times during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It was law-and-order folks, people who were against crime, people who were emotionally racist.”