If Philly’s beloved Mural Arts Program truly cared about equality and social justice, it would remove its mural of notoriously racist homophobe (also former city police commissioner and mayor) Frank Rizzo.
Public outrage against the mural frequently resurfaces, and on February 6, 2018, community members held a rally in collaboration with Philly Socialists in front of the Mural Arts offices. The small, peaceful block of Mt. Vernon Street was surrounded by at least 10 Philadelphia police vehicles and 20 officers.
Those were the days
Frank Rizzo’s divisive legacy of violent police brutality contradicts Mural Arts’ attempt to bill itself as making positive changes to unify marginalized Philadelphia communities. As rally organizers noted in their description of the event, “Frank Rizzo’s time as mayor of Philadelphia, during which he told his constituents to ‘Vote White’ and attempted to run for a third term in office, was far from democratic or representative of the racially equitable future that Mural Arts claims to be working toward.”
Speakers at the rally shared story after story of Rizzo’s tenure as one of Philadelphia’s most shameful public officials. Rizzo was an unapologetic racist who casually employed antigay slurs, terrorized the LGBTQ+ community, used the N-word to refer to his black constituents, set attack dogs on African-American student protesters, publicly stripped Black Panther Party members in front of newspaper photographers, and forcefully evicted the MOVE family from their home by brutally beating them.
Rizzo used corrupt and dictatorial tactics to profit from police terror, suppress opposition to his regime, and “defend the rights” of whites by using his police force to beat and kill black people and keep them out of white neighborhoods.
This past summer, public interest in who and what we commemorate erupted nationwide, leading to Confederate monuments all over the country being taken down — both by city officials and through illicit initiatives, in the case of Durham, North Carolina. This action manifested in Philadelphia in activist campaigns to take down the Rizzo statue, organized by groups such as the REAL Justice Coalition, as well as multiple anonymous attacks on the Rizzo statue and mural.
In August alone, the statue was egged and spray-painted with the phrase “Black Power” in two separate incidents. A group of people reportedly also threw white paint at the mural and wrote messages on it that included “RIP David,” referring to David Jones, a young black man shot in the back and killed by a Philadelphia police officer in June 2017.
Both strategies sent a clear message: Philadelphians don’t want monuments to white supremacists.
Time to take a stand
In August, Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden pledged to start a “conversation” about the Rizzo mural. As no announcements about its future have materialized, that now seems like an attempt to defuse the community’s demands and defer action.
Similarly, Mural Arts responded to demands to take down the statue of Rizzo outside City Hall — but not by removing the statue. Instead, it placed a sculpture of an Afro pick nearby, as if that would somehow offset the racism symbolized by the Rizzo statue.
Mural Arts did not seem to understand that it was still representing racism, not disavowing it. There must be ways to publicly recognize the negative aspects of this city’s history, so that we don’t pretend they never happened, without celebrating them.
Instead of listening to Philadelphia’s marginalized communities, Mural Arts has cared more about avoiding controversy. It has tried to remain neutral in a situation in which neutrality means perpetuating the injustices of the status quo.
It’s time for Mural Arts to take a stand on racism. Instead of reiterating the empty platitudes about unity and community that are the basis of its projects, what if Mural Arts had to say exactly what it believed in and act accordingly? Many Philadelphians are tired of hearing the excuses that it’s not up to Mural Arts to make a decision on a mural, or that taking down the mural would be disrespectful to the artist.
When an artist agrees to create public art, that artwork no longer belongs to one person. In Mural Arts’ words, murals are “created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress.” If this mural no longer serves the people of Philadelphia or their values, it should be taken down.
Less talk, more listening
At last week’s rally, Joan Reilly, Mural Arts’ chief operating officer, assured protesters that Mural Arts would renew public conversations about the mural. When pressed about whom it would consult, however, Reilly only named business owners and church leaders in the small neighborhood of Bella Vista. The Italian Market, where the Rizzo mural is located, is a major tourist destination. Mural Arts does not seem to have consulted non-business-owning people, nor considered how its celebration of Rizzo misrepresents the city as a whole.
Mural Arts’ insistence on maintaining the mural may now also end up having serious consequences for some people's lives: in one ongoing case against a community member the city alleges vandalized the mural with paint in August 2017, Mural Arts’ repair cost estimate directly led to the city bringing felony charges against the defendant.If convicted, the defendant may face up to 16 years in prison. Several people at the most recent protest pointed out that participating in the prosecution’s case is especially hypocritical of Mural Arts. The organization engages in restorative justice programs and frequently collaborates with organizations promoting alternatives to prison.
Mural Arts must consider whether this mural should continue to exist. The Rizzo mural is the most vandalized mural in the city, and the organization spends more taxpayer money preserving it than on any other in Philadelphia.
Mural Arts should stick to the values it espouses and listen to the communities it says it represents.