Pride And Prejudice: Honor LGBT History With Rizzo Statue Removal

 

The 2,000-pound, 10-foot bronze monument to Frank Rizzo was placed on Paine Plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building in 1998. The divisive statue became a topic of heated debate leading Mayor Jim Kenney to announce that the monument would be moved elsewhere. The Mayor’s Office is currently working to complete a proposal for the statue’s relocation. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Last week during the kickoff of the Philly Pride Parade a young transgender woman, ReeAnna Segin, was arrested for burning a Blue Lives Matter flag in protest of police presence at the event. Although many LGBT organizations did not respond to the incident, others acted immediately in her defense. Activists questioned the role of police at the celebration to begin with and especially took issue with the Philadelphia Police Department’s decision to put Segin in a men’s prison–a place that has a reputation of being psychologically and physically violent to trans women. Segin was eventually released after her supporters, including Amber Hikes, the executive director of the City’s Office of LGBT Affairs, raised money for her bail.

Segin’s case wasn’t the first local uproar about police and the annual celebration. In 2016, Philly Pride invited LGBT police officers of the PPD to be grand marshals in the parade. Local queer and trans organizers wrote a petition that gained nearly 400 supporter’s signatures, to oppose the invitation, stating “honoring [the Gay Officers Action League] is antithetical to the spirit and history of Pride.” In response to public pressure, the officers eventually declined the invitation.

Why all the controversy about police at Pride? To answer that question, it’s necessary to look at the history of policing and LGBT activism in Philadelphia. 

In 1975 during his re-election bid, Mayor Frank Rizzo told a reporter of his anticipated win, “Just wait after November, you’ll have a front row seat because I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” The former police commissioner’s well-known reputation for brutality targeting the LGBT community, African Americans, and activists is emblematic of an Old Philadelphia where police violence reigned supreme. Yet today, his statue still stands brazenly across the street from City Hall on Paine Plaza. Mayor Jim Kenney promised to remove the statue last fall after extensive campaigning by local activists. An uproar from Frank Rizzo devotees opposed to the move followed. The fate of the statue currently hangs in limbo as the Mayor’s Office continues to develop a proposal for the monument’s relocation. Once complete, the plan will be submitted to the Art Commission for approval. As the country celebrates LGBT equality and the activists who began the gay liberation movement, it’s an appropriate moment to shine a light on Philadelphia’s history of anti-gay policing. If the Mayor’s Office is truly committed to inclusion and diversity, this Pride Month it’s time for Rizzo’s statue to come down.

Philadelphia’s first Gay Pride Parade in June 1972. Participants convened in Rittenhouse Square and marched to Independence Hall. Photo by Harry Eberlin. | Image courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives

The statue tells one story of over-policing and extreme violence towards marginalized Philadelphians. But there is another, lesser known story of how Philadelphians organized across lines of race, sexuality, gender, and political allegiances to resist police violence in communities across the city.

Rizzo came into popularity with white Philadelphians as a heavy-handed police captain from South Philly in the 1950s and 1960s. He rose to power on a platform of racism and authoritarian law and order. During this time the gay rights movement was emerging locally and nationally in resistance to police violence in LGBT communities. Rizzo’s precinct was known for targeting businesses that he suspected of having gay patrons, arresting and fining them without reasonable cause. He raided one coffeehouse so many times that the owner eventually brought Rizzo to court for business damages. When several dozen local activists met in 1960 to discuss forming a gay rights organization, they intentionally met outside of the city in Radnor, PA because they believed themselves safest away from the long arm of Rizzo’s precinct.

Rizzo became the police commissioner of Philadelphia in 1968, overseeing and condoning raids on gay establishments and the arresting of gay and trans individuals across the city. In one 1968 raid, over 12 women were arrested, verbally harassed, and physically removed from Rusty’s Bar just for dancing together.

Rizzo’s violence didn’t only target gay communities. He was nationally renowned for attacking African American communities. When Black teenagers marched to demand improvements in their schooling, Rizzo’s officers met them with nightsticks. In 1970, while he was commissioner, Rizzo ordered raids on three Black Panther Party headquarters. Activists were held at gunpoint by police, taken outside, and publicly strip-searched. The brutality of these raids was so extreme that they eventually sparked international outrage.

In August 1970 members of the Black Panther Party were stripped handcuffed, and arrested by Philadelphia police in front of their headquarters on Columbia Avenue. | Image courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

When Rizzo was mayor in 1974 the Philadelphia Police Department shot 97 people and killed 31 individuals. As a point of comparison, the PPD killed four people in 2014, which is still four too many. Rizzo’s police force faced multiple federal lawsuits, resulting in court rulings and new laws that eventually cut local police shootings and killings by about two-thirds. 

After the killings, Philadelphia’s alternative press described Rizzo as a dictator and regularly published articles attacking his reign of terror against marginalized communities. These publications were diligent in reporting on numerous police transgressions: Black men murdered by the police, raids on gay bars, harassment of low-income youth, and institutionalized repression of political dissent.

Philadelphia’s gay liberation movement emerged during Rizzo’s tenure as police commissioner as a direct reaction to the police brutality that had been targeting gay businesses and communities for decades. The women arrested in the Rusty’s raid described the event as a radicalizing turning point. Within months, gay organizers in Philadelphia moved towards more radical and militant actions. Within two years, they had formed two organizations, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Radicalesbians, and aligned themselves with other Philadelphia organizations opposed to City-sanctioned violence. GLF organizers were galvanized when police attacked them at a protest in Rittenhouse Square. GLF’s leadership was multi-racial, and the organization worked with other organizations across the city to fight police violence. They participated in a campaign to develop civilian control over the police and created know-your-rights pamphlets for people who faced police harassment, which were then republished in local newspapers.

These activists achieved a number of victories over the targeting and criminalization of gay communities, and a lot has changed thanks to their hard work. Today, white gay establishments are not subjected to the same kind of surveillance and harassment that they faced 50 years ago. Yet, it was never the goal to merely end police brutality against certain demographics and certain establishments, but to end all state violence against all Philadelphians. Gay organizers intentionally partnered with other marginalized communities targeted by the PPD and were explicit in their mission to make the streets safe for everyone. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement, founded by Black queer women, and the nationwide murdering of unarmed Black men by law enforcement are chilling indications that America still has a long way to go before African Americans are safe from unchecked police brutality.

A LGBT pride flag currently hangs in the courtyard of City Hall. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Philadelphia’s Italian American community are generally wary of criticism against the city’s first Italian mayor. In many circles the memory of Frank Rizzo is one of cultural pride. But taking down the Rizzo statue will in no way devalue the important role Italian American’s have played in shaping our city for over a century. Italian immigrants helped build the cultural heart of Philadelphia as small business owners, entrepreneurs, labor union leaders, and politicians. That said, the contributions of Philly’s enduring Italian American community is grossly misrepresented by a man whose claim to fame was his platform of human rights abuse and boastful intolerance.

Condemning Rizzo is not a matter of applying the morals of today to the actions of the past. Even in an era where policing of gay establishments was the norm, Rizzo’s PPD was exceptional in its brutality. Local activists at the time made clear that Rizzo’s actions were unconscionable. Black and LGBT organizations waged powerful campaigns to fight police violence. To unite as one Philadelphia today we need to honor the marginalized voices of the past by removing a memorial that honors such a violent, divisive figure.

As we observe Pride Month we must be honest about its origins. Celebrating the history of queer liberation in Philadelphia means honoring a movement that emerged in direct opposition to Frank Rizzo and everything he represented. Honoring racism and police brutality on the steps of the Municipal Services Building is unacceptable in 2018. Instead, let us celebrate the brave Philadelphians who have fought and are still fighting for social justice in our beautiful city. 

***

Soapbox gives readers and contributors of Hidden City Daily the opportunity to share their thoughts on topical issues with smart, engaging discussion. Have an idea for an op-ed? Drop us a line and join the conversation: editor@hiddencityphila.org

About the author

Ali Roseberry-Polier bridges the worlds of community organizing and public storytelling, connecting present-day activist campaigns to historical legacies of resistance. In both worlds, her work has focused on anti-racism, environmental justice, and queer liberation. She has planned conferences on issues facing queer and trans communities, created environmental justice workshops, given talks on LGBT student activism, and spent a year as a researcher on an archive of Black campus protest. Most recently, she was a student curator for the exhibition, “At Home in Newark: Stories from the Queer Newark Oral History Project.”



9 Comments


  1. Mayor Rizzo is a political minefield. I wonder if Hidden City is the best place to view his divisive life.

  2. This is an old story that we’ve heard enough about this past year thanks to Seattle native Helen Gym.

    I was never a big Frank Rizzo fan but your comment “He rose to power on a platform of racism…” is not true at all. Please remember that Philadelphia is a majority minority city and many, many black residents liked him and voted for him or he wouldn’t have been in office. My Philadelphia in the 70s, 80s and early 90s was certainly not like the city we live in today. He was a direct, no nonsense type of guy but he held the city together during some extremely turbulent and violent years. Busting gay clubs and bars occasionally back in the day was routine in every city in the US so he needs to get a pass on that too. Smart talk about calling Attila the Hun a faggot is unfortunate but I’ve said the word countless times and I’m a gay man.

    The statue is an excellent likeness of him. The first time I saw it I was surprised that he was in that location but now I’m used to it and it’s good art. I never voted for him but it’s time to move on and stop being so politically correct and causing issues when there doesn’t need to be one. It gets tiring.

  3. I agree that it should be relocated.

    Preferably to the home of Roseberry-Polier and her spouse.

    Right next to the door.

  4. Well said. He was a product of his time and tried to make the city safe as he saw fit. Things are different today. That’s just the way it goes.

  5. For me, I see the statue as a historic fact and a reminder of progress.

  6. William Bierman

    What the new Philadelphians such as the author will never understand is that Philly was a rough town for a long time and men like Rizzo paved the way for people like them to thrive here. Many of the new people would not be able to enjoy the city in the manner they do currently without hard men like Rizzo who brought Philly through the crime and abandonment of the 70s

    Trying to view the past through the lens of the present is senseless.

    None of this is to say that there were not abuses and that they were not wrong.

    People ln S. Philly used to hit each other with baseball bats over parking spaces. Now that is all forgotten about And the houses are worth $600.000

    But this was not always the case.

    Rizzo had his place during his day and age

    • John Andrew Gallery

      This is an appalling rant and it’s disappointing that Hidden City should even publish such article. I worked closely with Frank Rizzo for four years while he was Mayor. I discussed LGBT issues with him; I had out gay members of my staff. Rizzo never demonstrated to me any gay prejudices, in fact he was quite understanding of the difficulties gay people faced at the time. Nor was he racist. Judge him as Mayor, when he matured, learned and changed, not just by his early comments as police commissioner. And leave the statue where it is.

  7. NO. Rewriting history is false. He was real. His legacy must be addressed, not by removal, but by understanding. You want to redress his influence? Then the appropriate response is to commission a sculpture reflecting the Gay Liberation movement in Philadelphia. It always seems to be young people trying to rewrite reality. Well, reality is not the internet. History stays, it lingers, you can’t remove it with a delete key. Dele with it.

  8. Perhaps Ms Roseberry-Polier should have had some thorough and meaningful conversations with black and gay Philadelphia residents that lived during all of the Rizzo years before writing this piece on nonsense. Pulling old, dramatic articles off the Internet does not a good story make.

    Nobody can debate that Rizzo loved this city. He was no transplant and lived his entire life here. He devoted his life to Philadelphia and that’s what this statue stands for to me and many others. Dirt can be dug up on every single person who is memorialized with a statue in this world.

    Mayor Kenney may want the statue down for political reasons but the decision is in the hands of the Arts Commission. That statue is not moving anytime soon and if you think so you are greatly mistaken.

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