The murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police not only sparked social protests across the country but also sped up a process scheduled for 2021: the removal of a statute of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, long considered a symbol of racial division in America’s City. This is in keeping with the riots of Charlottesville, VA in 2017, when activists called for the removal of statues of Civil War leaders, also seen as symbols of white supremacy.
I will get back to Mayor Rizzo in a moment. But first, let us consider the surname “Rizzo.”
It is a very common surname in Italy–so much so that its bearers often found success throughout Europe, the most famous example being David Rizzo, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Ditto in America with people like Rita Rizzo, aka Mother Angelica, the Franciscan nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in Alabama; Pat Rizzo, the saxophonist with the 1960s funk band Sly and the Family Stone; the Rizzo Brothers, Adam and Nathan, who founded Solar Liberty in 2003, the hugely successful company which develops solar energy panel systems both in the U.S. and in developing nations; and two current baseball stars: Anthony Rizzo, first baseman of the Chicago Cubs, and Mike Rizzo, general manager of the Washington Nationals (no relation).
In the mainstream media, however, the name Rizzo has long been tarnished, even demonized. One of the most iconic film roles of the 1960s was Ratso Rizzo, the scuzzy, limping pick-pocket in Midnight Cowboy played by Dustin Hoffman (“I’m walkin’ here!”). In the Broadway musical and film Grease, Rizzo, leader of the female rat pack “The Pink Ladies,” is dismissed as a slut. Even the children’s TV show “Sesame Street” got into the act with its Rizzo the Rat puppet, with his gnarled teeth, thick “Joisey” accent and off-color comments–quite a nice role model for the kids!
(Incidentally, imagine puppet characters on “Sesame Street” similarly wallowing in negative stereotypes of other racial, religious, ethnic, or even sexual groups: Omar the Terrorist? Sammy the Sissy Boy? They wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute, nor should they. But such is the media’s double standard.)
No one has so carried the mother-lode of negativity via the name Rizzo, however, than Frank, the controversial mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. The source of that controversy was that he deliberately used the tools of power–having first served as the city’s police commissioner–to oppress African Americans, “hippies,” and gays. The late 60s and early 1970s were a tumultuous time, with riots overtaking American streets even more prodigiously than today. What made Rizzo popular was his “law and order” stance, which clearly took a page from President Nixon’s. The fact that he was a working-class, “tell it like it is” white ethnic may have had something to do with both his view of the world (conservative) as well as the knee-jerk negativity of the press.
But, consider, for instance, this quote from Zach Stalberg, a reporter for (and future editor of) the Philadelphia Daily News who covered the mayor:
“He was the symbol, especially in the early years, of a lot of anger and a lot of anti-black feeling,” Stalberg said. “And he was willing to see his image used in a way that wasn’t pretty. But I can’t remember the real Rizzo actually behaving in a racist way or saying racist things.”
Also interesting is that Rizzo’s stance against the black activist group MOVE in 1978–ordering the police to engage in a shoot-out–is what solidified his image as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners racist. Ironically, after being defeated in 1980, Rizzo decided to run again in 1983 and was defeated by Wilson Goode, who became the city’s first African American mayor—and who, like Rizzo, engaged in the exact same violent tactics against the MOVE group in 1985, an incident which dogged his own legacy. (Actually, it was worse: Goode’s police dropped a bomb on MOVE’s headquarters.)
Clearly, Frank Rizzo wasn’t in the same class as a truly great Italian American mayor like Fiorello LaGuardia, a man who actively broke barriers for black Americans (e.g., appointing Jane Bolin as the first African American female judge). He wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the late Thomas Menino, the longest-serving mayor of Boston (1993-2014) who defended immigrants and called out anti-gay bigotry.
He was, however, a product of his times, which were messy, ugly, and confrontational.
So, by the way, was the late D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who has a statue on Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capital, and who once said the following: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening businesses and dirty shops. They got to go.”
Maybe Mayor Barry’s statue should be removed, too…..? -BDC