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The Rizzo statue disappeared early Wednesday. Philadelphia is still unpacking its legacy.

For some, who recall bloody police beatings of students protesting segregation and the humiliating public strip-search of Black Panthers, it was a 2,000-pound weight lifted off the city’s collective psyche.

The statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Rizzo was removed Wednesday.
The statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Rizzo was removed Wednesday.Read moreCourtesy NBC10

On Wednesday morning, Philadelphia woke up to a profound change in the landscape of Center City. Overnight, workers had removed the statue of Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner, then mayor, whose law-and-order tactics had come for many to symbolize racist and brutal policing in the city.

“The statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in an early-morning tweet. “It is finally gone.”

A polarizing populist whom both fans and detractors now liken to President Donald Trump, Rizzo served as mayor from 1972 to 1980, and died while campaigning for a third term in 1991. His likeness was installed on Thomas Paine Plaza, outside the Municipal Services Building, in 1999 — and many in his South Philadelphia base, and in the law-enforcement community, believed that he should remain there in tribute to his service to the city.

For others, who recall bloody police beatings of students protesting segregation and the humiliating public strip-search of Black Panthers, it was a 2,000-pound weight lifted off the city’s collective psyche. And for those who had been demanding the change — first with three years of petitions, social-media campaigns, and peaceful protests, then last weekend, amid protests demanding justice for the death of George Floyd and other victims of police violence, with attempts to topple the statue and set it on fire — it felt like a moment to celebrate, if only one incremental step toward ending oppressive policing.

“This is a lesson in, if you do not listen to people, they will take matters into their own hands — and they will force your hand,” said Deandra Jefferson, an organizer with Philly REAL Justice, which led Frank Rizzo Down campaign.

In response to that campaign, which likened Rizzo to the Confederate leaders whose statues were being scrubbed from cities and towns in the South, Kenney had initially pledged to move the statue by 2021. In May, he said the work would be completed in June. But critics were outraged to see how, as much of Philadelphia lay in shambles after Saturday’s protest, the sculpture was quickly cleaned of vandalism and surrounded by a phalanx of police.

» READ MORE: From Wednesday: Protesters undeterred by storms and heat

Even Zenos Frudakis, the sculptor and longtime defender of the 10-foot-tall bronze lightning rod, said he was “relieved” to learn officials had removed what had become a “manifestation of oppression.”

“We want to change the way things are socially, and it’s got to start at the top in the government,” he said.

Still, the overnight removal cut short a conversation that many felt was not finished.

Rizzo’s family, in particular, called Kenney’s vanishing act cowardly political pandering.

“The way he did this in the middle of the night, he reminds me of a looter,” said Frank Rizzo Jr., a former City Council member, adding that he hoped a future mayor might put it back in place.

» READ MORE: How Mayor Kenney abruptly ended years of delays to remove the Rizzo statue

He recalled a time when he encountered an elderly African American woman standing by the statue, holding its hand. The woman explained she stopped by routinely on her way home, to greet the mayor and thank him for the time he helped her son out of a bit of trouble. “She told me she was just visiting her friend.”

Joe Mastronardo, Rizzo’s grandson, posited that the decision came down to personal animosity between onetime political rivals. “He probably didn’t want to look out the window of his office in City Hall and see the statue of a much better mayor than he was,” he said.

But for those who experienced the worst of Rizzo-era policing, his presence in the civic center was a routine trauma.

“It sickened me. It sickened me to my stomach,” said Bernyce DeVaughan, 72, describing her reaction every time she saw the sculpture charging down the steps toward her, hand raised high. “It sent a message that the city approved of Rizzo’s behavior, that it approves of racism and whatever police did to us.”

She was 16 when she and her 14-year-old sister, Deborah, joined a march to protest segregation at Girard College, the all-white boys’ school, in 1965. “All of a sudden, the police, the motorcycles, and the horses, they just burst into the crowd and they started chasing us up the street toward 20th Street,” she said. After her sister was tripped and fell, she was "bitten by police dogs while a state trooper had his foot on her chest to hold her down.”

Another Girard protester, Jibril Abdul-Jaleel, 74, now of Chester, said a Rizzo statue never should have been erected.

“I used to spit on it every time I saw it,” he said. “Rizzo was our nemesis. He was the one who rallied Philadelphia police against us. And our cause was right. It was just.”

» READ MORE: Mural Arts Philadelphia ceases all involvement with the Frank Rizzo mural

Herbert Hawkins, 71, was among those in a Black Panthers office in Mantua in August 1970 when Philadelphia police — at Rizzo’s direction — raided it, tossing in tear gas to draw them out into the street, then at gunpoint forcing them to strip nude as media looked on. When Hawkins was taken to police headquarters, out of sight of the cameras, he said, he was mercilessly beaten with batons.

“Police harassment was a normal thing,” the Brewerytown resident said Wednesday. “I think in a lot of cases, it felt like that was what they were supposed to do.” So nightmarish was life under the Rizzo police department, when Rizzo was elected mayor, Hawkins considered fleeing the city.

“They knew what the symbol was representing when they put it up,” said Michael Africa, a member of the MOVE 9 who spent 40 years in prison. Rizzo had sought to clear the MOVE compound with a court order, and when that failed, police were sent to secure the property. In a subsequent standoff, Officer James Ramp was fatally shot, and nine people in the house were convicted of the murder. The last surviving member of the group still in prison was released just this January.

“There’s always the hope that finally that corner is being turned. Finally, someone will see that certain things are so egregious that you have to address them,” Africa said, given his family’s parole and the statue’s removal. “But then you see someone kneeling on someone’s neck for nine minutes in such a cavalier way," he added, referencing Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police.

Some in law enforcement have a different view of Rizzo’s tenure. Several said they were sorry to see the symbol of an effective leader whisked into storage.

» READ MORE: Who was Frank Rizzo? Nearly 30 years after his death, Philadelphians still don’t agree | From 2017

“He dealt with crime, let’s put it that way,” said Eddie Lopez, president of the Spanish American Law Enforcement Association.

“Rizzo was a cop’s cop," agreed former Upper Darby Police Chief Michael Chitwood, who served under him in the 1960s.

Chitwood recalled an incident in the late 1960s when members of Teamsters Local 107 took over Roosevelt Boulevard. Rizzo told his officers, “Do what you have to do." In the end, "Some of [the Teamsters] got roughed up and then they left. These were rugged, tough guys. Frank Rizzo was a man of his time.” He defended Rizzo’s approach to fighting crime, and said theories of police deescalation were not developed until years later.

But for Ab’dallah Lateef, 52, of North Philadelphia, the problem is that the lessons from that era have not been learned.

“Those core values and principles of racialized oppression, aggression and mismanagement of resources, and hyper-marginalization of black folks in particular that transpired during his administration — those legacies are still persistent to this very day,” said Lateef, a former juvenile lifer and the Pennsylvania coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “I’m not so celebratory about the symbolism, when the substance of our reality is not so different from when he was mayor of Philadelphia decades ago.”

For organizers like Jefferson, the true test will be what comes next.

The second prong of the Frank Rizzo Down campaign is police abolition, the abandonment of a system she views as so broken, no reform can fix it. “It really comes down to giving communities space to take care of harm that happens in their communities, without the threat of being kidnapped and dehumanized,” she said.

But far from the protests that have roiled Center City and Fishtown, in Rizzo’s native South Philadelphia, some residents who still remember the former mayor fondly scoffed at the idea it needed to be removed.

“Gee, pal,” said Eileen Simmons, 80, on her way to the Passyunk Market Deli, “it was Rizzo, right? We’re not talking about Hitler here. I can’t agree with taking his statue down.”

Asked about the former mayor’s reputation for racism, Simmons shook her head with impatience, saying, “That guy stepped on a lot of toes of people with lots of different skin complexions.”

Almost two miles southeast, the opinions were more strident.

“Taking the statue down was an absolute disgrace,” said Bob Pacetti, 73, a former firefighter and lifelong resident of the neighborhood, strolling toward the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory.

“Our mealy-mouthed mayor was being sneaky by taking the statue away in the middle of the night. There was no chance for us to protest that move, the Irish and Italians down here who didn’t like it."

Not every South Philadelphian sees it that way.

Bill Colsher, 66, a retired software engineer shopping at the Acme, called the statue "an incitement.” Colsher said these days the area can no longer be characterized simply as a bastion of apologists for the strong-man mayor.

In the end, many agreed that Rizzo’s likeness no longer represented the community.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said Tuesday that Rizzo’s statue looming over City Hall “stood for racism and unaccountable police brutality.”

“Well," he said, “he is looming no more.”

Staff writers Anna Orso and Chris Palmer contributed to this article.