by Len Lear
Ever since the hideous events in Charlottesville, there have been unjustifiable incidents of vandalism to a Frank Rizzo mural in the Italian Market and to the statue of Frank Rizzo by renowned Glenside sculptor Zenos Frudakis as well as a debate, apparently sparked by City Councilwoman Helen Gym, over whether or not the Rizzo statue should be allowed to remain in front of the Municipal Services Building, just 200 yards or so from City Hall.
I have read several letters and op-ed pieces in the past week alleging that Rizzo was really a nice guy because he gave somebody’s son a job in City Hall, that he could not have been a racist because his personal bodyguard, Anthony Fullwood, was an African American, etc. Some of these writers have very short memories or are engaging in revisionist history.
I am an old lifelong Philadelphian with a pretty good long-term memory. I personally interviewed Frank Rizzo several times during my time as a reporter with the Philadelphia Tribune from 1967 to 1977, and there is no doubt that he could be a charmer, but as a police commissioner and mayor he also had a really dark side. I could not count all the victims of horrific police beatings I interviewed and photographed during the Rizzo years — cracked skulls, broken legs, etc. — who often claimed they were called the most vile racist and homophobic epithets during the beatings.
I am not writing here about violent criminals but ordinary citizens who might have disagreed with police about a traffic ticket. There was no way for such victims to complain to police commanders about the beatings because, as many feared, “They’ll just come back and do it again.” In fact, one transgender individual I interviewed in North Philly claimed he had been viciously beaten by cops several times “just for fun.” A few months after I interviewed him, he committed suicide.
Of course, there are those Rizzo apologists who will argue that even if all of these individuals were beaten for no reason, Frank Rizzo was not personally to blame because he did not do the beating. But as one black police officer told me (off the record, of course), “Rizzo made it quite clear in code language that no cop will be punished for beating up one of ‘those people.’” And at least in the cases I wrote about, no cop ever was disciplined for unjustified brutality.
Rizzo definitely had several things in common with Donald Trump. Both were bullies, braggarts and poor chief executives with hair-trigger temperaments. Both would never apologize or admit they were wrong, although they were often very wrong. Both had mammoth egos who would be loyal to those who would keep telling them how great they were but were less than kind to those who dared tell them the truth.
The fact that so many black and gay Philadelphians should have to walk past this statue of Rizzo that glorifies a hideous period in the city’s history is almost as bad as the fact that descendants of slaves have to walk past statues of Confederate traitors in Southern cities and elsewhere. The Rizzo statue belongs in a museum, not on a public street.