Protesters place KKK hood on Philly Rizzo statue, call for its removal

 Police stand guard at the Frank Rizzo statue on the grounds of the Municipal Services Building. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Police stand guard at the Frank Rizzo statue on the grounds of the Municipal Services Building. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

A Philadelphia member of the Black Lives Matter movement placed a pointed Ku Klux Klan-style hood atop the 9-foot bronze statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, the latest gesture in growing tensions over the legacy of one of the city’s most polarizing figures.

“It’s a different generation now. It’s not our parents’ generation. They started it. We’re going to pick up the fight,” said Asa Khalif, with the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter after topping the statue with the white hood. “I think within this movement we are extremely creative, as you can see, and we’re going to come up with ways to force them to tear it down, and I’m looking forward to it.”

To some, especially members of Rizzo’s family, the 20-minute episode was highly offensive.

“Twenty minutes is twenty minutes too long,” said Rizzo’s grandson Joe Mastronardo. “Someone should have been there as soon as possible and taken that off. That was disgusting. My mom and I watched that in horror.”

As passer-by Tawanda Bullard, 50, who is black, stopped to take in the scene, she felt disgusted.

“I feel like Frank Rizzo was the best mayor for Philadelphia,” Bullard said. “I liked the way he ran the city with an iron fist. He said what he meant and he meant what he said.”

Shortly after, two city workers showed up with a ladder and a long pole and removed the hood swiftly and with no confrontation. Then a phalanx city police officers on bikes surrounded the statue.

An online petition calling on city officials to remove the prominent Rizzo statue, which was installed in 1998, has attracted more than 900 supports, while a counter-petition to keep it where it is has gained about the same number of backers. 

As head of the police and then mayor of the city for seven years ending in 1980, Rizzo acquired a reputation as a no-nonsense, often brusque public figure who was tough on crime and quick to turn a memorable, and sometimes inflammatory sound bite. He also relished being in the spotlight as a hard-nosed crime-fighter.

He once showed up at a riot with a nightstuck tucked in his tuxedo cummerbund. In another famous episode in 1970, while Rizzo was the city’s top cop, members of the Black Panther Party were stripped to their underwear at gunpoint and searched in public while cuffed against a building. It came after a city officer was fatally shot in a Fairmount Park guardhouse.

But Rizzo also attracted praise for beefing up the number of black officers in the police force, and he had several close associates who were black, his grandson Mastronardo said.

“His two body guards were black men, really tough black men, and they were around him all the time. I saw that with my own two eyes, and I spent an enormous amount of time with him,” Mastronardo said. “The tolerance of this type of nonsense is just obscene,” he said, referring to the Friday demonstration. 

Mayor Jim Kenney said he’s open to have a discussion about the placement of the statue, but “that dialogue won’t be started and finished over a few days and a few hundred signatures.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke went a step further by saying he encourages questioning the location of the Rizzo statue, saying he’s glad a dialogue about it has started.

“The challenges out city faces — whether poverty, education, or housing inequality — can only be understood and resolved by studying our history,” Clarke said. “Including and especially our warts.”

The protest over the statue comes after the mural of Rizzo in the Italian Market has been vandalized, with grafiti criticizing “racist pigs.”

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