Why is the Rizzo statue controversial?

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Karen Friedman reports on Philadelphia leaders reacting to Frank Rizzo's death on July 16, 1991. (WPVI)

As the debate over whether to remove the statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo grows, there are many in the city, some a new generation, others transplants, who are wondering what the debate is all about, who Frank Rizzo was.

In short, he was a Philadelphia native who rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department, to commissioner, and then to two terms as mayor, serving from 1972 to 1980. He failed in a re-election effort in 1986. In 1991, after switching to the Republican party, he was running again against Ed Rendell, when he died suddenly that summer.

His legacy can only be described as complicated.

His supporters, and there are many of them, described him as larger than life, a big man with a big heart, and above all, as a man who loved Philadelphia. Those supporters are not all white, he had a loyal following within parts of Philadelphia's black community.

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Amy Buckman reports on the memorials for the 20th anniversary of Frank Rizzo's death on July 16, 2011



But for others within that community, he was seen as a heavy-handed enforcer of law. Critics say he was too quick to use and order force against black Philadelphians. He was commissioner in 1970 when, after a series of attacks on lawmen, police raided the Black Panther Party. The targets of the raid were stripped to their underwear, or naked, and paraded in front of newspaper cameras. One of the most famous photos of him was as police commissioner, during what was described as a racial disturbance in 1969, wearing a tuxedo with nightstick protruding from his cummerbund.

Tuxedo-clad Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo in 1969, at South Philadelphia racial disturbance, billy club, sticking out of his jacket.



Action News reporter Vernon Odom covered Frank Rizzo when he was mayor, and in the 11 years after he left office. In 2014 he described the conflict between the Rizzo police force and black communities for Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.


In this era of Black Lives Matter, and of increasing racial tensions across the country, it is those memories that are driving the efforts to remove his statue from where it stands in front of the Municipal Services Building. For many, it still symbolizes an era in which police held a tight grip over black communities and used harsh tactics aimed at African-Americans.

And yet, Frank Rizzo was mayor when Philadelphia became the first city to fund and build an African American history museum. There are Philadelphians of all races who still tell stories about the time Mayor Rizzo said he would help them out, and fulfilled his promises. He is credited with helping get Wilson Goode elected as Philadelphia's first black mayor in 1983.

Those who loved Rizzo say he was no racist, but a man who believed in law and order for all of Philadelphia. If you were one of his supporters, it didn't matter your color, he supported you in return.

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Crews lower the statue of Frank Rizzo into place on December 31, 1998


Related Topics:
politicsrizzophiladelphiaphiladelphia city hallblack lives matterracismprotestCenter City Philadelphia
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