The city of Philadelphia on Wednesday morning took down a statue of the former mayor Frank Rizzo, a champion of conservatives who aggressively policed black people and gay people in the 1960s and ’70s, and whose likeness has long been criticized as a symbol of racism and oppression.
The statue, which sat on the steps of a municipal services building, had remained in Center City for more than two decades since its unveiling in 1999. It was often vandalized, and protesters in recent days have tried to take it down and light it on fire.
“The statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long. It is finally gone,” Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted early Wednesday.
At a morning news conference, Mr. Kenney said that the statue was already scheduled to be removed — in 2021, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. But he said the protests showed that the statue “had to go away for us to understand where we need to go to look forward.”
“I believe this is the beginning of the healing process of our city,” he said. “This is not the end of the process. Taking that statue down, that monument down, is not the be all and end all of where we want to go.”
Mr. Rizzo became the police commissioner in 1967, and served two terms as mayor, from 1972 to 1980. As police commissioner, he rounded up gay people late at night and forced members of the Black Panthers to strip down in the streets.
He was celebrated by some as a law-and-order leader who cracked down on crime. But his tactics, to many, bordered on the dictatorial, intended to suppress opposition and keep black people out of middle-class neighborhoods. While trying to run for a third term as mayor, Mr. Rizzo urged supporters to “vote white.”
Mr. Kenney said the city did not yet know what would happen to the statue, and had no immediate timetable.
“We just needed to get it out of the way so we can move forward,” he said. “If there’s someone who wants it, wants to take it somewhere else, we’ll talk. We needed to get it to a place where it was out of people’s sight.”
Mr. Rizzo reveled in his reputation as a tough-talking police commissioner, and cultivated an image as a champion for working-class white Philadelphians.
As commissioner, he raided gay clubs and denigrated members of MOVE, a group of radical black separatists who lived in West Philadelphia. “You are dealing with criminals, barbarians, you are safer in the jungle!” he once said about the organization.
In 1978, after the group refused to heed an eviction order from their rowhouse, the police descended on the property to try and force them out. Mr. Rizzo vowed he would “show them more firepower than they’ve ever seen.”
Firefighters aimed hoses at the house and flooded it in an attempt to move the residents inside. Television cameras filmed naked children trying to crawl out of the house.
During the confrontation, an officer was shot and killed. Sixteen other police officers and firefighters were injured in the standoff. (In 1985, seven years after the raid, the police bombed MOVE’s headquarters, killing six adults and five children.)
In 1979, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint against the city, Mr. Rizzo and other city and police officials, accusing them of police abuses.
The complaint said that the use of force against Hispanic and black residents “shocks the conscience,” and that federal aid should be withheld until officials agreed to enact reform. Mr. Rizzo was unapologetic. “I’m ready to tell them they can stick it,” he told The Washington Post of the federal aid.
Verbose and imposing — he stood about 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds — he both courted media coverage and attacked the press, especially as it documented police abuses. He was once filmed threatening to beat up a reporter and his camera crew, after they tried to interview him while he was walking his dog.
“I want to fight you,” Mr. Rizzo said. “Because you’re a crumb creep lush coward.”
He tried to run again for a third term and persuaded the City Council to place a question on the 1978 ballot that would let him run again in 1979.
Philadelphia residents overwhelmingly opposed the change, voting two to one against it.
Mr. Rizzo ran for mayor again in 1983 and tried to temper his abrasive style, casting himself as the “new Rizzo.” The effort failed and he lost in the Democratic primary to Wilson Goode, who became the first black man to serve as mayor of Philadelphia. In 1987, Mr. Rizzo ran again, this time as a Republican, but lost once more to Mr. Goode.
In 1991, he ran again as a Republican and won the nomination, but died of a heart attack before the general election. He was 70.