As protests over the killing of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis sweep the United States, tense demonstrations have taken place in Philadelphia, where days of conflict have centered around the statue of Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner during the civil rights era who opposed desegregation, targeted black communities, and frequently used homophobic slurs. Standing across from City Hall in front of a municipal building, the bronze figure has become a symbol of police brutality for the protesters—and the debates surrounding the statue have only grown more intense over the past few days, as lines of officers and mounted state troopers surrounded the sculpture in a show of force.
For nearly a week, protesters hammered away at the bronze statue, tying ropes around its neck, attempting to set it on fire, and painting the word “pig” across its chest. But the statue is now gone, removed earlier this morning by a crane after days of increasing public pressure on Mayor Jim Kenney to finish the job. The removal came nearly three years after the city agreed to relocate the statue and only a few days after Kenney publicly promised that it would be gone “by another month or so” during a press conference.
“I think it’s appropriate that the statue was removed given the tone deafness of the statue and its positioning,” said Valerie Gay, an executive at the Barnes Foundation who has served on the board of directors of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and was previously named one of the city’s most influential African-Americans. “There was a multiethnic assault on the statue because people understand the history and context.”
Although he had at first opposed the statue’s relocation, the artist behind the monument, Zenos Frudakis, eventually came around to the demands of protesters. He was fresh out of art school when he was commissioned in 1999 to create the 3,000-pound likeness of Frank Rizzo, who once urged people to “vote white.” Frudakis was initially worried about how protesters had interacted with the statue—not because the artwork might be damaged, but because the ground underneath it was hollow, with a subway concourse running through it.
“If they had succeeded, they might have opened up the ground under them and fallen down below,” he told ARTnews. “I’m a human before I’m an artist, and this is not worth getting people hurt.”
More than two decades after producing the sculpture, however, Frudakis views removing it as one step toward dismantling white supremacy. Speaking late last night, he was not aware of the city’s imminent plans to remove the statue, nor has Philadelphia told him where it will go. “It may end up in a box, who knows,” he said, noting that taking away the statue was a small price to pay to keep protesters safe.
The Rizzo statue has generated significant attention, but it is only one part of a larger problem with monuments in Philadelphia. Of the 1,500 public monuments there, only one honors a black person. The bronze statue of Octavius Catto, an African-American educator and civil rights activist, was unveiled three years ago, in 2017.
“On the other side of City Hall, there are three statues of Ben Franklin; one was added in the last 10 years,” said Paul Farber, cofounder of the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab.
“There’s a longstanding practice of utilizing the monument to point out systematic racism in the city,” Farber continued. “This was the case after the murder of Trayvon Martin and others. What you saw over the weekend was an expression of ongoing injustice, but also an inability for the city to follow through on its own word that the statue had to go.”
According to Timothy Lombardo, a historian who wrote a book on Frank Rizzo, a shift in the racial demographics of Philadelphia has coincided with changing attitudes toward the former mayor. Over the years, Philadelphia has moved from being a majority-white city to one where black people make up nearly 44 percent of the population. “His administration fought the construction of public housing and closed public hospitals predominantly used by African-Americans,” Lombardo noted.
“But there is a reason why his statue is in front of the municipal building and not City Hall or the Police Department,” the historian added. “During his tenure he gave raises and sweetheart pension deals to a lot of city workers; much of it left the city broke.”
The city has not yet commented on the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue, or where the sculpture will be relocated.
“I hope we don’t have amnesia,” said Gay, thinking about what the future holds for a Philadelphia without the statue. “But I don’t think we are ready for healing yet, we have to clean the wounds first. The reality is that people are afraid of addressing racism.”