Frank Rizzo: A Step Down

Image caption: A white protest poster reading: “RIZZO’S RACIST TIMELINE, 1966 – sent 4 squads of cops to raid SNCC offices and apartment, 1967 – encouraged police violence against students demonstrating a black history curriculum in Philly, 1979 – sued by D.O.J. for allowing pervasive police abuse, #unlearnwhitesupremacy.”

Photo by Danielle Corcione

Story by Clarence Harold Jones

Frank Rizzo was not the average laborer from the working class who made it good.

He had a talent for politics and made connections with the movers and shakers of the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine that had run Philadelphia since the 1940s.

Rizzo’s mentor, Mayor James H. J. Tate, had pushed Rizzo up the ladder of power in the Philadelphia Police Department from sergeant to captain to inspector and finally to commissioner in 1967. Rizzo became mayor in 1972.

During his career as a police officer and later as a ranking police supervisor, Rizzo made a name for himself as a tough guy who pulled no punches and didn’t mind cracking heads. He openly encouraged police brutality within the department.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, he showed open hostility toward the LGBTQ community, the Civil Rights community and almost anyone else he didn’t like. He raided gay bars and hangouts, pursued hippies and beatniks with a passion, raided the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was accused of planting evidence against them in the form of two sticks of dynamite. He raided the offices of the Black Panther Party in 1970, having its members stripped naked and searched outside the building and in front of the cameras of the media. The pictures were widely circulated, earning Rizzo a reputation as a racist and a bigot.

At a demonstration in front of the Philadelphia School District where students were protesting for black history classes, Rizzo led a group of police officers against the protestors, telling his officers to “get their black asses.” Witnesses reported seeing many of the students badly beaten.

Still, Rizzo had a very high approval rating among the fearful white working class. It was a time that saw major changes taking place in the nation. The Civil Rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam made a lot of working class whites feel very uneasy, and they ate up his tough guy image like a cheesesteak hoagie with a bag of chips. And Rizzo traded on those fears for his own political gain. He played the political game very well.

After the election in 1971, the Democratic Party machine officially proclaimed Frank Rizzo Mayor of Philadelphia, and patronage became the name of the political game.

He traded city jobs, city contracts and city money to reward his political supporters. It’s called “political capital” — and Rizzo spent lots of it.

It all came out into the open in a sensational event in August 1973, when then-chairman of the city’s Democratic Party Peter Camiel alleged that Rizzo had offered to let Camiel name some of his friends to high-paying city jobs if Camiel would support Rizzo’s pick for the upcoming district attorney’s race. Camiel said Rizzo made the offer in a men’s room of a downtown hotel during a political conference there.

Rizzo publicly denied having made such an offer, and to decide the issue the Philadelphia Daily News suggested that they both take a lie detector test.

Rizzo declared that if the polygraph test “says a man lied, then he lied,” putting absolute faith in the test.

But the results of the polygraph showed that Rizzo had indeed lied. And not only that, but Rizzo’s deputy mayor Phillip Carroll had also lied. Democratic Party Chairman Peter Camiel passed the test with flying colors.

Afterwards, Rizzo said the results were “not worth the paper it was written on.”

The whole affair boosted sales of newspapers and raised ratings for the TV news for a couple of weeks, then quietly faded into the past.

But Rizzo’s lavish patronage came at a price, and that price was high.

After his “reelection” in 1975, Rizzo used his political skill, and most of the political capital he had left, to push a tax increase through Philadelphia City Council, raising the city wage tax from 3.31% to 4.31%.

This move angered not just Rizzo’s opponents but many of his supporters as well. And they got together to push for the first-ever Recall Election to remove a sitting mayor in the city’s history.

Petitions were drafted and signatures collected and contested. Then the issue moved into the courts and was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where, in a one-vote majority decision, the Recall Election was declared unconstitutional.

Rizzo won the Recall fight. There was no Recall Election. But his future political ambitions suffered a loss.

Even after declaring that in his second term he would go after his political opponents in such a way that he would, in characteristically homophobic terms, “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” he did not regain the power he wanted.

He mounted an unsuccessful campaign to change the city charter to allow him to run for a third term as mayor. And lost by a margin of 2 to 1. The Democratic Party machine said, “enough is enough” and considered his attempt as greedy and overreaching.   

Still, Rizzo did try to run for mayor again in 1983 and in 1987, both times without success.

Finally Rizzo tried running for mayor in 1991, this time as a Republican. In a city with a Democratic Party machine that only allowed a very small handful of Republicans to be elected to office, and not a single Republican mayor in over fifty years, his chances did not look good.

Then, on July 16, 1991, at 70 years old, Frank Rizzo suffered a massive heart attack and died.

We now know that the Rizzo statue will be moved from its present location on the steps of the Municipal Services Building. If it is placed behind a wall or somewhere less visible than it is now, the memory of Frank Rizzo may fade away into the past.

But if it is moved to some very visible place, let it stand as a symbol of everything we do not want in an elected public official.

Numerous lawsuits were brought against Rizzo’s police department, his mayoral administration, and even himself personally. Alleging police brutality, racial discrimination and official corruption of all sorts.

We need to elect more progressive-minded people to public office. Progressives who would work to serve the people, and not just those running the political machine.

Frank Rizzo moved up from his humble beginnings in South Philadelphia to a $400,000 home in Chestnut Hill.

While the city and its people, except for his friends and cronies, suffered financial losses.

It is fitting that the statue of Frank Rizzo appears to show him descending a flight of stairs.

Because through his words and his deeds, he brought us all down a step.

. . .

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