Paint on the Face: Vandals Deface Mural of Former Philly Mayor Frank Rizzo

Incident was latest incident targeting images of the former Philadelphia mayor

As the debate over if the Frank Rizzo statue should remain on city property continues, a mural of the late Philadelphia mayor was defaced overnight.

A police officer patrolling the area around the Italian Market in South Philadelphia – once a Rizzo stronghold – heard breaking glass just before 3 a.m. Saturday in the area of 9th and Montrose streets, police said.

The officer rushed toward the mural to find a group of masked people with mason jars full of white paint and spray paint vandalizing the mural.

One of the paint-filled glass jars smashed onto Rizzo’s face leaving a large splash of paint over Rizzo’s nose. Vandals also wrote the words “Kill Killer Cops” and “Rest in Peace David” – apparently a reference to David Jones, who was shot and killed during a June traffic stop.

The officer gave chase and caught up to one of the suspected vandals but the others got away, dropping jars of paint along the way.

This was at least the third time the Rizzo mural was vandalized including as recent as May.

“The mural of Frank Rizzo has been both beloved and reviled since its creation in 1995 by artist Diane Keller,” Mural Arts Philadelphia executive director Jane Golden said earlier in the week. “Given our history about community-driven projects, perhaps it is time to have a conversation about whether this mural should stay or be replaced by something else.”

The argument over removing honors to Rizzo includes a statue of the politician.

The bronze statue of Rizzo, Philadelphia's polarizing former police commissioner and mayor, was defaced late Thursday with the words "Black Power" written in white spray paint.

The vandal also wrote "The Black community should be their own police" on the steps of the Municipal Services Building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City where the statue stands.

The string of vandalism follows renewed calls for the removal of public images in the wake of the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and national discussion over how to handle statues and monuments linked to racism and other emotionally charged issues. 

Driven by Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, there is growing support for removing tributes to Rizzo, who died of a heart attack in 1991. Some call the statue and mural reminders of Rizzo's strained history with the African-American and gay communities during the late 1960s and 1970s. 

Rizzo, a hard-charging, big-mouthed icon of head-cracking law enforcement in Philadelphia, served as police commissioner for four years before serving two terms as the city’s mayor from 1972 to 1980. His friends, family and fans remember him as a devoted public servant unafraid to speak his mind. Thousands of people signed a recent online petition to keep the statue in place.

Rizzo's detractors saw his police force as corrupt and brutal.

Lowlights from his time as police commissioner include an incident in 1970 of officers raiding the Philadelphia headquarters of the Black Panthers and forcing the men to strip in public.

For those who knew and covered him, like former cop and retired Inquirer reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. and NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Rizzo can't be easily compared to other politicians. And Rizzo doesn't belong in the same category as long-gone Confederate leaders whose statues are coming down across the country.

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