‘Take Down the Rizzo Statue': Philadelphia Councilwoman Wants Controversial Former Mayor Removed from Center City

Days after violence turned fatal over a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia and within hours of President Donald Trump asking if statues of George Washington would be next, a Philadelphia council member called for the removal of a statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo in the shadow of City Hall.

“All around the country, we're fighting to remove the monuments to slavery & racism. Philly, we have work to do. Take the Rizzo statue down,” Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym said in a tweet Monday.

Rizzo’s fraught history with the city is nothing new, Gym told NBC10.

“In a way, you can date this all the way back to when he was in office,” she said, adding that Rizzo regularly used racial epithets and advocated for publicly strip-searching members of the Black Panther party.

“What happened, to some extent in Charlottesville, comes out of a nation that needs to be able to confront its own racism and history. We can’t marginalize racism. We can’t deny that it’s growing [and] growing more violent.”

A day after Gym's public call for its removal, police responded to a report of a vandalism at the statue. An hour after that report, an unidentified man threw an egg at the statue and placed the sign, "Shame on President Trump" on it. On Wednesday morning, NBC10 cameras captured police taking a man into custody after he also egged the statue, which was barricaded off. Police charged the Maplewood, New Jersey man with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief.

The incidents occurred in the aftermath of President Trump's controversial comments blaming the violence in Charlottesville on both the white supremacist groups and the groups that were protesting them.

The Rizzo statue, located outside the Municipal Services Building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City, was erected in 1998 using privately funded money. That it lives on public land in a highly visible location is one of the problems that needs to be addressed, Gym said.

She would support moving it somewhere less visible or onto private property.

“For the people who say this is erasing history, I would say the plaque and memorial also erased history. Frank Rizzo means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but there is no question he stands for racism for a lot of people,” Gym said.

The councilwoman has at least one supporter in Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. His spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, told NBC10 that "now is a good time to have that conversation."

"We need to figure out the proper forum for that conversation in a serious, structure way," she said. "Now is the right time."

On Wednesday, Kenney noted that he can't unilaterally take action to remove the statue.

"The Rizzo statue went up in a public process, there were people who petitioned the government to erect the statue to pay for the statue," Kenney said. "If there's a group of people or folks in the city who want to reconsider the placement of that statue, whether it be removed or relocated, that's up to them to petition the government and go through the same process as the people that erected it did."

Many of Rizzo's supporters have come forward however, calling for the statue to remain.

"It's very near and dear to my heart that the statue stay and that the mayor's legacy live on," Edward Durst told NBC10.

Thousands of people signed a recent online petition to keep the statue in place, including Jody Della Barba who doesn't believe Rizzo was racist.

"The first thing he did was integrate the police cars," Barba said. "Put a black and white officer inside the car. Is that a racist? I don't think so."

Robert Bogle, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, told NBC10 his feelings on the statue are mixed. While he acknowledged that Rizzo gave the Philadelphia Tribune, the country's oldest continually published African-American newspaper, equal access for the first time in 90 years, he also feels the former mayor didn't always do the right thing.

"I think those who permitted the statue to be put there, who represent the citizens of Philadelphia, should be responsible to respond to that," Bogle said.

Rizzo first joined the Philadelphia police department in the 1940s and became its commissioner in 1967. It was during that time that he strong-armed Black Panthers and also broke up riots. He often bragged that Philadelphia had the lowest crime rate of the country’s biggest cities, the New York Times wrote in his 1991 obituary.

Rizzo served as a two-term mayor from 1972 to 1980. His list of accomplishments included introducing the Commuter Tunnel in Center City that connects Suburban Station to Reading Terminal Market.

But his “racist relationship towards Philadelphia’s African-American community has always been one of violence, devastation and despair” wrote Erica Mines, who started an online campaign to remove his statue.

The petition received 1,000 signatures last year when it first surfaced, and has since received nearly another 1,000.

In May, a Rizzo mural in South Philadelphia was defaced by black paint. It has previously been spray-painted with vulgar language calling him a fascist. Murals Arts Philadelphia, which oversees the mural, said its future is also uncertain. 

"Given our history about community-driven projects, perhaps it is time to have a conversation about whether this mural should stay or be replaced," Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said. 

"We would love Philadelphia to show thoughtful leadership in our country about these issues."

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