Mayor Jim Kenney has done this before.
But yet again, on Sunday morning as protests raged across Philadelphia and the nation, Kenney found himself explaining a 2,000-pound statue he says he “never liked.”
This time, the mayor described why the statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo — which has become a symbol of racial tension in this city — was cleaned off first thing Sunday morning after being defaced the day before.
Then he said something else he’s said before: It’ll be moved from its perch in a Center City plaza soon enough. “Hopefully by another month or so," he said.
Kenney has for the last three years pledged to move the Rizzo statue, which currently sits in front of the Municipal Services Building, to another location. Since 2017, calls to remove the statue have intensified, kicked off by a national reckoning over monuments to Confederate figures. In the fall, his administration announced the statue would be moved sometime in 2021 in tandem with the reconstruction of Thomas Paine Plaza.
“We’re going to accelerate its movement," Kenney said during a news conference Sunday, adding: “I can’t wait to see it go away.”
It’s another step in what has become a years-long saga over a 10-foot-tall, bronze monument to Rizzo, who was in office from 1972 until 1980 and whose likeness has stood in the shadow of City Hall since 1999. Plenty of white Philadelphians remember him as a protector, and a law-and-order type from South Philly who stood up for blue-collar communities.
Large swaths of black Philadelphians remember Rizzo as a former police commissioner who built his political career on oppressing their communities. Some were offended that it was among the first things cleaned in Philadelphia on Sunday morning — and that it was guarded by dozens of mounted state troopers and Philadelphia police officers wielding batons.
“[It’s] protecting whiteness in Philadelphia,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, interim executive director of POWER, an interfaith organization. “We are using the police force to protect a white icon when there are not police protecting black and brown families in this moment.
“If the mayor wants to be tone-deaf,” he continued, “that was one of the most tone-deaf things the city could have done, is clean up that statue first and make sure they continue to have police around that statue.”
Kenney said the cleaning Sunday morning was part of a broader effort to restore the area around City Hall, where there was additional vandalism and cars were burned during Saturday’s demonstrations. A handful of windows at City Hall were shattered and two cafés in Dilworth Park were vandalized and looted.
"It got cleaned with everything else that got cleaned,” Kenney said. “There was no intention of cleaning up for any particular political reason or any special reason.”
Advocates for removing the statue said Kenney’s announcement decision was long overdue. But Faye Anderson, director of All That Jazz Philly and a black community leader, said she’ll believe the statue is moving when she sees it. For now, Anderson is angry it was there Saturday amid national unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Having [the statue] there was like waving a red flag in their face,” she said of the protesters. “And they finally combusted.”
Added City Councilmember Helen Gym, who has led efforts to remove the statue since 2017: “The targeting of the statue is very much about institutionalized power and the city’s refusal to really confront our wrongdoings right now.”
Even the sculptor, who has publicly stated that removing it isn’t necessary if officials take steps to contextualize Rizzo’s tenure, said Sunday he felt resigned to its removal. He said he was most concerned with people attempting to pull it down — the statue is heavy, and it’s situated precariously over a subway concourse.
“It’s hard for me to see it pounded with a hammer, see flames trying to burn it,” said sculptor Zenos Frudakis. “But it also bothers me that people are hurt.”
Kenney’s announcement also charged up Rizzo’s supporters, who believe allegations of racism leveled at the former mayor are revisionist history — a description of a Philadelphia and a man they never knew.
Rizzo’s grandson, Joe Mastronardo, who lives in Huntingdon Valley, slammed Kenney, saying his announcement was a “typical liberal symbolic gesture that does absolutely nothing.”
“A lot of people’s opinions are second- and thirdhand, and now that race is such a huge topic again, they’ll just latch on to anything,” he said. “They want to make my grandfather a racist because he was a tough cop in a tough time.”
Mastronardo said his family believes the statue shouldn’t be moved out of the middle of the city. If anything, he said, it should be in front of City Hall.
City officials have said removing and identifying a new location for the statue will cost more than $100,000. The mayor’s office said last fall it was considering a new location in South Philadelphia, where Rizzo hailed from.
The process has been lengthy. In 2018, months after the mayor first announced the statue would be moved, the timeline was delayed. Officials asked for public input. Some complained Kenney was waiting until his second term to make a decision to avoid political fallout, a charge he denied. And the City Charter gives the Art Commission the final say.
Plenty of public art advocates believe the time to move it was long ago.
“We didn’t need any more evidence that this is a point of trauma and ongoing pain for our city, especially black residents,” said Paul Farber, artistic director of Monument Lab. “But yet again, we have another chapter.”