Peter Binzen often told the story of how one of Frank Rizzo’s “tough guys” came up to his desk in the busy newsroom of the Bulletin in 1977 and said, “Mr. Rizzo hasn’t read your book, but he wants you to know that if you got anything wrong, he’ll have your ass.”
The book in question was a biography of Rizzo, The Cop Who Would Be King: The Honorable Frank Rizzo (Little, Brown), written in 1977 by our fathers, Peter Binzen and Joseph R. Daughen. It was a clear-eyed look at one of the most polarizing figures in 20th century American politics.
In the current debate about statues and Rizzo’s legacy, we are all viewing a complex figure from the past through the lens of today’s political climate. We have no easy answer to this debate, but we can offer a bit of history on the subject. Rereading the book now, with Donald Trump in the White House, we find Rizzo’s controversial behavior full of foreshadowings.
As noted in the New York Times’ 1977 review of the Rizzo book:
“What [Daughen and Binzen] say in this blow‐by‐blow account of Mayor Rizzo’s life and rise to power makes us understand that if Mr. Rizzo hadn’t come along, Philadelphia probably would have found someone else just like him. He was of course the ideal cop in a year, 1971, which came to be known as ‘the year of the cop.’ He was of course the answer to the prayers of the white ethnics who, by the beginning of the 1970s, had grown tired and frightened of the civil rights movement and all the money and attention that had been spent — uselessly, they believed — to balance America’s accounts with black people. That Mr. Rizzo understood instinctively how to exploit these circumstances — that he quickly mastered the crude art of blaming ‘rapists’ and ‘hoodlums’ (i.e. blacks) and wishy-washy judges for all of Philadelphia’s troubles — was so much icing on the cake.”
As Daughen said of Rizzo recently, “He gave people an outlet for their prejudices.” But the Rizzo our dads profiled was not one-dimensional. At the same time that he appealed to blue-collar whites, Rizzo had some supporters in the African American community. Among them was John Saunders, then managing editor of the black-owned Philadelphia Tribune and a member of YIPAC, a group of young African American professionals living in the West Philadelphia neighborhood Rizzo once worked as a police captain. YIPAC was an organization that had filed many grievances against Rizzo before ultimately finding that he was more ally than enemy.
In the book, Saunders recalls, “Complaints seemed to follow Rizzo . . .but not many of them could be substantiated. He always treated us graciously. . . ,I can tell you, if I needed a policeman, he’d be the one I’d want coming to save me.” Daughen and Binzen reported that by the time Rizzo left West Philadelphia in early May 1952, most of YIPAC’s members had come to view him favorably.
Much of Rizzo’s controversial behavior may seem familiar in today’s landscape. Rizzo’s relations with the press might also have a familiar ring. At one point, at Rizzo’s behest, his supporters in the trade unions picketed the headquarters of the Inquirer and Daily News, forcing a temporary shutdown of the papers and compelling their attorneys to file a restraining order. One picket’s sign read: “When is the Inquirer going to start telling the truth?” Not long afterward, Rizzo boasted during a potential recall election that he was more popular than he’d ever been with the voters.
Daughen and Binzen note that “in the past, whenever he found himself in a tight spot, Rizzo invariably had tried to wriggle out of it by playing the tough cop. He would denounce rapists and murderers, soft judges and bleeding-heart liberals. He would be telling the rowhouse Philadelphians that if it wasn’t for Mayor Frank Rizzo, the thugs would own the streets. It had always worked, even though crime and violence steadily marched forward, oblivious to Rizzo’s bluster.”
Shortly before the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, Rizzo requested that the federal government send in 15,000 troops to protect the city from the “leftists and radicals” he claimed were headed to Philadelphia to disrupt the event. On June 21, 1976, the Justice Department rejected Rizzo’s request. Rizzo said the day before the actual Bicentennial: “I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this – a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence.” There were no “radicals” or “leftists” arrested on July 4 and there were no disturbances in the city. The then-executive director of the ACLU’s Philadelphia chapter said Rizzo “just hates these radical groups. . . .The surest way to have a violent confrontation is to deny people the right to assemble and then call out the troops when they do. I can’t imagine a better recipe for trouble.”
The cover of The Cop Who Would Be King notes, “Once in a generation, a unique character comes on the political scene. And all hell breaks loose.” In the 1970s, Frank Rizzo was that character. The fact that 40 years later Rizzo still sparks controversy speaks to his polarizing power. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Rizzo is in the news again today in the age of Trump.