For nearly three years, Mayor Jim Kenney had used a talk-fast, move-slow approach to removing the divisive Frank Rizzo statue.
The statue long presented a political minefield for Kenney, who ran for mayor with a coalition that included support from white voters in his native South Philadelphia who adore Rizzo, from members of the African American political powerhouse Northwest Coalition, and from progressives who saw the statue as a monument to racism.
But not until widespread unrest over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer engulfed Philadelphia, and then in Wednesday’s early morning darkness, did a crane hoist the waving, 10-foot, 2,000-pound bronze Rizzo off its pedestal outside the Municipal Services Building on Kenney’s orders.
The removal came after years of delays that led activists to question whether Kenney, who in his early political career espoused tough-on-crime positions that would have sat well with Rizzo, was truly invested in removing the statue.
As recently as Sunday, after demonstrators defaced and tried to pull down the statue during the unrest over Floyd’s death, Kenney said the removal couldn’t happen right away because doing so would disrupt the public services offices in the basement of the Municipal Services Building below. Previously, his administration said the removal had to be delayed to allow the Art Commission to weigh in and to find a new, less visible home for the statue.
Councilmember Helen Gym, who called on Kenney to remove the statue in 2017, said the mayor’s decision this week in light of the protests shows the power of collective action.
“It turned out that it wasn’t actually necessary to have an Art Commission review, to debate about where it has to go, to debate about how much it was going to cost to do the removal," Gym said in an interview. “It takes a powerful force to change institutions and to make something become a priority, and that’s some of what we saw in the past few weeks.”
In August 2016, after Black Lives Matter protesters hung a Ku Klux Klan hood on the statue’s head and a petition started calling for the statue’s removal, Kenney said he would consider moving it.
“Dialogue won’t be started and finished over a few days and a few hundred signatures,” Kenney said at the time.
A year later, Gym called for the statue to be removed after white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Kenney responded by saying Gym’s request was a “starting point for a discussion.” The city’s nine-member Art Commission had to receive a request to relocate public art, he noted, and then hold a hearing on the matter. The City Charter says those commissioners, appointed by the mayor, have authority over how city art is “removed, relocated or altered in any way.”
At that point, Kenney predicted dissent about any outcome, saying, “Not everyone will be happy, but everyone will be heard.”
By then, former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was mayor when the statue was installed on New Year’s Day 1999 after a Mummers Parade, said he had come to see it as a mistake.
Kenney’s administration solicited opinions about the statue’s fate, using a website to collect 3,601 responses in three weeks. They amounted to a mix of Rizzo defenders and detractors, some saying he was a strong mayor who deserved a statue and others painting him as a racist whose effigy should be dumped into the Delaware River.
On a Friday in November 2017, the administration suddenly announced that the statue would be removed as part of a planned renovation of Paine Plaza. But it had not filed a formal request to the Art Commission, and no timeline was spelled out.
Frank Rizzo Jr., a former City Council member, said his family received no notice from the city. Kenney’s administration blamed that on “internal miscommunication.”
After that, a year passed, and nothing happened publicly until the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville protests and Gym’s demand, when The Inquirer asked the mayor about the Rizzo statue’s removal.
“Of all the issues on my scale of important things to do, this is not even in the top 100,” Kenney replied on Aug. 7, 2018.
Kenney also said the statue would stand in place until at least 2020 or 2021, waiting for the Paine Plaza renovation to get started. The mayor attributed that to finances, saying it would cost the city an extra $200,000 to remove and store the statue ahead of the renovation.
The decision to delay the removal pushed any action past Kenney’s 2019 campaign for a second term. He said politics did not factor in the plans.
The Kenney administration issued a directive in November 2018 listing the reasons for removing public art, including if “upon receiving significant and continuing protests against a public work of art,” the mayor determines “that it is in the best interest of the city.”
The policy also set a 90-day period of public input, as well as input from the artist and the donor of the artwork. The city’s Art Commission then has the final say.
But on Tuesday, Kenney simply bypassed the 2018 directive and ordered the statue taken down “because of the unprecedented emergency circumstances.”
In 1991, a 32-year-old Jim Kenney was elected to City Council for the first time, and a 70-year-old Frank Rizzo died while running for mayor for the fourth time.
Although Kenney may have been in no rush to remove what to many Philadelphians was a painful symbol of the harsh, racist tactics of Rizzo, who was police commissioner before becoming mayor, Kenney has said his thinking about law and order had evolved over the years.
In a 1997 interview with The Inquirer, Kenney accused his colleagues of having a “liberal agenda,” asserted he was one of the only members of Council focused on making the city safer, and complained about limitations on the use of force by police officers.
“We now have discussions, ironically, about no longer allowing police officers to use pepper gas,” he said. “I mean, come on. You can’t use flashlights, you can’t use the clubs on the head, you can’t shoot anybody. What’s next? Are we gonna hand them feather dusters?”
Kenney also dismissed concerns that police crackdowns would threaten residents’ civil liberties: "Civil liberties? We’re not protecting the rights of people who are working and paying their taxes and raising their children properly. They can’t go out of their houses after sundown. How crazy is that?''
Kenney has since changed his tune, and in 2015 apologized for what he said was an “incorrect philosophy” as he ran for his first term as mayor.
“The paradigms of policing have certainly changed over 20 years ... and I regret making that comment. It doesn’t represent me,” he said. “It doesn’t represent my thinking or my work.”
As for Kenney’s abrupt switch on how quickly to take down the statue, Councilmember Cindy Bass said the protesters deserve the credit.
“People have been saying for years now, ‘Bring it down,’ and so to have it accelerated so quickly, it’s no coincidence," Bass said. “He was really just responding to the call of the moment.”
But going forward, Bass said, Philadelphia needs to go beyond symbolic acts to address the reasons the statue caused so much pain for the African American community, as well as the reasons so many have risen up in protest.
“The statue being moved is a good thing, but what about the more immediate needs?” Bass asked. “That was a psychological need, but what about the life-sustaining needs that the community has, like a roof over their head and food in their mouths?”