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.
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.
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.
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.
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