'Black Power' Spray-Painted on Statue of Polarizing Philadelphia Mayor - NBC 6 South Florida
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'Black Power' Spray-Painted on Statue of Polarizing Philadelphia Mayor

Police arrest suspected vandal who spray painted statue of former Philadelphia mayor

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The day after the statue of Frank Rizzo, former Philadelphia mayor, was defamed, supporters and critics are arguing over what should happen to the statue. NBC10's Deanna Durante spoke to some people who think the statue should stay, and some who think it should go.

    (Published Friday, Aug. 18, 2017)

    The bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's polarizing former police commissioner and mayor, was defaced late Thursday with the words "Black Power" written in white spray paint.

    The vandal also wrote "The Black community should be their own police" on the steps of the Municipal Services Building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Center City where the statue stands.

    Vandalism of statue follows renewed calls for its removal in the wake of the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and national discussion over how to handle statues and monuments linked to racism and other emotionally charged issues. 

    A Rizzo supporter covered the statue's vandalized midsection with a sheet overnight. City crews later used soap and brooms to clean up the graffiti and by daybreak the words were gone.

    Philadelphia police took the suspected vandal, who investigators say drove off in a Toyota station wagon, into custody before 7 a.m. He has been identified by police as 40-year-old Wali Rahmen of Philadelphia.

    Rahmen is charged with three misdemeanors: criminal mischief, institutional vandalism and desecrating objects.

    Officers who had been guarding the statue earlier in the day had gone off duty, police said.

    The latest act of vandalism came after protesters clashed with police Wednesday near the statue. Earlier that day, a man from Maplewood, New Jersey, was arrested after he was caught on camera throwing eggs at the statue.

    On Friday morning, a mohawked man placed trash at Rizzo's feet.

    The bronze likeness, unveiled in 1999, depicts a waiving Rizzo bounding down the steps of the Municipal Services Building heading for Philadelphia City Hall across the street. It was donated to the city.

    Driven by Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, there is growing support for removing the tribute to Rizzo, who died of a heart attack in 1991, from city property. Some call it a reminder of Rizzo's strained history with the African-American and gay communities during the late 1960s and 1970s.

    Gym, a first-term Democrat, tweeted that "all around the country, we're fighting to remove the monuments to slavery & racism. Philly, we have work to do. Take the Rizzo statue down."

    Mayor Jim Kenney hasn't rejected the idea. Kenney said he wasn't thrilled when it was first installed.

    "If there's a group of people or folks in the city who want to reconsider the placement of the statue, whether it be removed or relocated, that's up to them to go through the same process as the people who erected it," Kenney said.

    It's not the first time activists have demanded the statue be removed. Last year, an anti-police brutality group called Philly Coalition for Real Justice petitioned for its removal.

    Rizzo, a hard-charging, big-mouthed icon of head-cracking law enforcement in Philadelphia, served as police commissioner for four years before serving two terms as the city’s mayor from 1972 to 1980. His friends, family and fans remember him as a devoted public servant unafraid to speak his mind. Thousands of people signed a recent online petition to keep the statue in place.

    Rizzo's detractors saw his police force as corrupt and brutal.

    Lowlights from his time as police commissioner include an incident in 1970 of officers raiding the Philadelphia headquarters of the Black Panthers and forcing the men to strip in public.

    For those who knew and covered him, like former cop and retired Inquirer reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. and NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Rizzo can't be easily compared to other politicians. And Rizzo doesn't belong in the same category as long-gone Confederate leaders whose statues are coming down across the country.

    Gibbons remembers Rizzo fondly for his tough policing, describing the 6 feet, 2 inch Italian American from South Philly as the guy who “when he entered a room, everything else stopped.”

    “He is not by any means Robert E. Lee, or Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision," said Mitchell, who began her career as a radio and television reporter for KYW during much of the Rizzo years. "He was a twice-elected mayor of Philadelphia, who was clearly controversial in his years as police commissioner. But from a distance, I would say he is not analogous to those Confederate leaders who tried to overthrow the government.”

    When Rizzo said in 1978 that he wouldn't seek a third term in office he vowed to "defend the rights" of whites who had been "kicked around too long," The Washington Post reported

    But Mitchell said that, "For all of this flaws, Rizzo never publicly defended white separatists."