The statue of Frank Rizzo stands in the foreground, the city’s crest a golden blur over his shoulder. To Rizzo’s left is a giant metal-toothed pick, its raised black fist a reminder of the racial tensions still swirling around Philadelphia’s former police commissioner.
The sculptures, created by two different artists in two different eras, are locked in an awkward dance between the present and the past. Rizzo is a symbol of the establishment. That raised black fist, in the eye of this beholder, represents resistance. Perhaps, that is why, when I look at them together, I am certain of one thing.
Frank Rizzo’s statue must be removed from public property. Not just because it represents a celebration of today’s police brutality, but also because it is a bitter reminder of another time that betrayed black hopes — the 1970s.
Coming on the heels of the civil rights movement, the crushing loss of Martin Luther King Jr., and the uprisings that followed, the 1970s were a time of defiant pride for black people. But it was also a time of optimism.
We’d watched the black church play host to the men and women who fought to obtain black freedoms. We’d watched peaceful marches and economic boycotts result in political victories. We’d cheered as black heroes such as King won international acclaim. And then, as the 1970s dawned, we watched those victories morph into double-edged swords.
Our first steps toward integration allowed for greater opportunity, but also ripped the foundations from strong black communities. Our forays into predominately white educational institutions expanded our middle class, while weakening historically black colleges and universities.
Black and brown soldiers from places such as North Philly died in the rice paddies of Vietnam. A wave of heroin addiction swept through black communities like a plague. Gangs were strengthened, families were weakened, and communities that had exploded in violence after King’s death withered without private or public investment.
And in the midst of all that, we still cried out, “Black is Beautiful.” We still held on to the hope of the 1960s. We defiantly pushed through the violence that we faced from police brutality in our communities.
It was against that backdrop that a tiny symbol arose to represent all we’d survived and all we were yet to accomplish.
A metal-toothed pick.
This instrument — topped with a plastic fist that screamed Black Power — was more than a comb. It was our shout against the constraints of conformity. With it, we could tease out our curled strands until they stretched into a rounded sphere as powerful as the Earth itself. We called it an Afro. It was life sustaining and proud, beautiful and black. It was ours.
So it was no wonder the pick — with its elongated metal teeth affixed to a raised and clenched black fist — came to symbolize who we’d become. We were no longer Negroes. We were Afro-American. We were black, and we were beautiful.
It’s just too bad that the pick on the patio of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building doesn’t seem to reflect that kind of lofty message. It’s not a bronze spiral of humanity swirling skyward like “Government of the People,” the massive sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz that also occupies the Municipal Services Building patio. It’s not a bigger-than-life portrayal of a man who inspired raw emotions on both sides of the spectrum, like Zenos Frudakis’ staue of Frank Rizzo.
But it’s not supposed to be. The artwork, by artist Hank Willis Thomas, is called “All Power to All People,” and it’s meant to reflect something else altogether.
Thomas’ creation was commissioned by the Mural Arts Program as part of its Monument Lab — a project that asked 20 artists to create art in response to the question, “What is an appropriate monument for today’s Philadelphia?”
Planning for the project started two years ago. That’s about a year before I first called for removal of the Rizzo statue, and about 23 months before Councilwoman Helen Gym joined in that call.
Thomas’ creation pays homage to the Black Panthers — a group that Rizzo’s police stripped naked in the street. Thomas pointed to the message of the self-defense and community empowerment group when I asked him what he was trying to convey with his artwork.
“I think it’s best encompassed in the title, ‘All Power To All People,’ which was the slogan of the Black Panthers,” Thomas told me. “I think it means the same thing that it meant in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69, that the work still needs to be done. That, even as progress happens, there’s still progress to be made.”
I agree that much remains to be done.
We can start by removing Rizzo’s statue from public property.