How many people does it take to move a statue?
Apparently, thousands. Maybe even tens of thousands.
The Frank Rizzo statue, a memorial to Philadelphia’s history of brutal policing cast in 2,000 pounds of bronze, no longer has a place of honor across from City Hall.
After three years of fits and starts, of hemming and hawing, Mayor Jim Kenney had the statue removed in early morning darkness on Wednesday, four days after protestors swarming over the statue in an attempt to topple it became one of the defining images of extraordinary protests against the killing of George Floyd that began Saturday here and across the nation — and that still continue.
In one way, Kenney’s removal of the statue in the darkness of dawn was disturbing, but also offers a somewhat fitting idea of it slinking out of sight in shame. It was standing too long.
Three years ago, after violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee led to calls to remove the Rizzo statue, Mayor Kenney made noises about removing it, soliciting opinions and input from the public, and providing an array of excuses for delays: That it would be physically complicated, too costly, that it would require Art Commission approval. The final plan was to remove it as part of an overhaul of Municipal Plaza a year or so from now.
But in the end, it was yanked from its Municipal Plaza perch like an infected tooth.
Now that we see how easily it could have been done, it’s hard not to see its continued presence for the past three years as either serious blindness to the racial pain that defines this city, or worse, a provocation — a continual reminder that threat and force loom over too many of our citizens and discourages dissent. The fact that the statue was one of the first things cleaned up on Sunday morning following the protests was also an act of blindness or provocation. Neither option is palatable.
Former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo let nothing, including civil rights, get in the way of keeping law and order, and is a complicated icon of the city’s blue-collar roots as well as racial oppression.
In some ways, his continued presence in the plaza was a testament to Philadelphia’s own history of police brutality and violence against African Americans. The department’s ongoing lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability, its lack of commitment to reform have been manifested in both individual cases and department-wide scandals throughout the years. It also played out too often in the past few days, from the teargassing of crowds to the covering up of badge numbers by some police.
Throughout his administration, Mayor Kenney has championed Philadelphia as welcoming to immigrants and celebrated its diversity. Every day the Rizzo statue stood undercut that message.