KEEP HIM: Petition To Keep Rizzo Statue Zooms Past 20,000 Signatures

The 20,000

The petition calling for Mayor Kenney to refrain from doing anything about the Rizzo statue outside the Municipal Services Building is gaining steam.

Even if you guess that half the petition signers are grumpy racists who moved out of Philadelphia recently or a long time ago, that still leaves 10,000 Philadelphians, which far surpasses this petition put up by Erica Mines calling for Rizzo’s removal.

Doonesbury, August 7 1972

Doonesbury, August 7 1972

Should We Trust This To Democracy?

Nothing has flamed the passions of local residents more than the discussion of removing Rizzo.

No other subject.

Not making changes to the Mummer’s Parade, not the hangups over the Pope visit, not the Actual Value Initiative.   No other topic has animated people more than this hunk of metal.  That’s pretty sad.

City Council could take the temperature of registered City residents and put Rizzo’s fate up as a ballot question in the upcoming sleepy November election.   It would be one election that Rizzo can’t manipulate, such as his foiled attempt at altering the City Home Rule charter to give himself a third term, or his successful quashing of Philadelphians rights to recall elected officials at the ballot box in a split 4/3 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision–a scar left unremedied by Harrisburg to the present day.

Then again there’s a case to be made that the populous is too much of an angry mob to give The People a chance to have direct input.  If a “recall the Rizzo statue” petition wins at the ballot box, who’s to say that anger won’t manifest itself elsewhere?

Helen Gym’s Call For “Conversation” Isn’t Conversation

Councilwoman Helen Gym’s call to ‘have a conversation’ and Mayor Kenney reiterating her sentiment is a bit facetious.    Gym isn’t interested in conversation.   She herself said now is the time to remove the Rizzo statue.   I think she was pretty clear there.

Gym still considers herself an activist.  She is riding the Rizzo statue to boost her profile.  Activists do not have conversations.  They make demands.

The Case

A lot of people have been asking their parents and grandparents what they remember of Frank Rizzo, and I was no exception either.  My own parents remember him because of the national news, nearly always embarrassing, coming out of the Rizzo administration.   My family also stayed in Philadelphia for a couple months in the early 1970s as my dad worked a temporary assignment at the Navy Yard.  They remember what the city was like during the 1970s.

Gym is a transplant to Philadelphia, like me.    I can see the vitriol on both sides and where it comes from.  So, I’ll point out both cases since no one in the City seems to be articulate enough on social media to do it.

The argument to keep Rizzo is born out of a deep resistance to change which is part of Philadelphia’s DNA.  Philadelphians hate change, no matter what it is, no matter how small, no matter what it is.   Rizzo’s core base of support came from South Philadelphia Italians.  This area of the city also propped up former State Senator Vincent Fumo, one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful deal-makers.  There are many city employees and officials who have inherited a legacy in public service by getting directly involved in government during the Rizzo era.    Rizzo himself was also a big political player, which coined a term known today as Rizzocrats, the tough pro-authoritarian Democrats who in their own way learned from Rizzo’s direct jump of power from the Police Commissioner’s desk directly to Room 215.

Rizzo is venerated by many in this city precisely because of his stance on crime, despite his police department’s gross disregard for civil liberties.

They argue, right or wrong, that as New York City was collapsing in the 1970s under maladministration and urban decay, Rizzo’s authoritarian style made for a safe a city as possible given the chaos of the times.

Precisely because of the passions that get inflamed whenever Rizzo’s name is brought up, the monument to Frank Rizzo puts a period on the end of an era that Philadelphia will never forget, nor should it forget, despite all his flaws.  After all, no human is perfect, and every statue of every great person usually always glosses over or eliminates the id.

The argument to get rid of Rizzo comes from an equal, emotional, painful and summary reaction to Philadelphia in the 1970s; an environment that Rizzo dominated.   No one who is younger than 60 has much of a memory of Rizzo when he was the mayor from 1972-1979.   Those who are older still harbor that deep division that is as wide now as the days when he was our city’s mayor.

Doonesbury, August 8 1972

Doonesbury, August 8 1972

Our present-day set of virtues to judge Rizzo leaves no room for debate: He’s terrible.   He hated homosexuals and considered them mentally diseased.   He considered leftist protestors as an enemy of the state and looked the other way when they were beaten up by his men when he he ran the Philadelphia Police Department continuing through his mayoralty.   A summary in the Washington Post from August 1979 says it all about Rizzo’s public career:

On a cool damp spring night two years ago, more than 20 Philadelphians watched in stunned disbelief as 10 policemen beat a black man, breaking nightsticks on his head and shoulders, after he had run a stop sign.

A few days later, in early May 1977, Philadelphia Mayor Frank L. Rizzo said this about the incident: “It’s very easy to break some of these nightsticks nowadays.”

Police shootings in some Rizzo-era summers were a daily occurrence, far too many for the local newspapers to even keep up with investigating them all.   One case in particular rocked the nation: a black man arrested by the Philadelphia Police Department was shot in the back.  While handcuffed.   Newspaper editors eager with glee pressed Frank Rizzo to see how he would explain a death that any competent medical examiner would colloquially say was an execution.  Rizzo’s relationship with the media, already dour, plummeted.

And then one day, in an attempt to get Rizzo to speak about rumors circulating of–what else? corruption–the Daily News proposed to the mayor the idea of taking a polygraph test.  He accepted.

The rest is history:

Should We Do It?

I don’t think racial math will be playing out in a “Recall Rizzo” ballot petition.  But it will be the present day placing a judgement call on the Philadelphia of the past.   Maybe a ballot petition will finally close the door on 1970s Philadelphia, it succeeds and the Rizzo monument moves to some quiet corner of the city where it will be forgotten.

Or the measure fails and the last reminder of what a big city authoritarian mayor did to Philadelphia sits squarely in front of us on our morning commute, each and every day.