Tag Archives: Public Art

Up Against a Brick Wall

Last week, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled Portraits of Justice, a public art project to engage ordinary citizens in conversations about transforming the criminal justice system.

Portraits of Justice - MSB

Jeffrey Krimes and Russell Craig’s powerful murals overlook the statue of Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had close ties with Italian mobsters and hung out at Black Mafia-owned joints on “The Strip” in West Philly. As mayor, Rizzo was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience.”

#FrankRizzo - Philadelphia Inquirer Headlines

The murals’ bricks represent barriers to reentry. With their close proximity to Rizzo, the background brings to mind the former police commissioner gloating that his officers ordered Black Panthers up against a brick wall and forced them to strip naked in front of the news cameras. The August 31, 1970 incident is one of the many reasons Rizzo is loathed by African Americans.

Black Panthners Forced to Strip - August 31, 1970

The murals are designed to empower the public to reimagine a criminal justice system that is more than “just us.” To my surprise, they helped me reimagine a Thomas Paine Plaza without the Rizzo statue. The sheer size of the murals and the facial expressions are a silent rebuke to the monument to racial injustice. Tellingly, the family-commissioned hunk of junk has to be caged to protect it from the public.

Portrait of Justice - Rizzo

Charlottesville: One Year Later

In the year since the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there has been a growing awareness that public art is about public memory. It matters whose story is told in public spaces. From Maryland to Texas, Confederate monuments have been taken down. It took Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh three days to send the Confederate monuments in “Charm City” packing.

confederate-monuments-baltimore6-ap-mem-170816_4x3_992

Conversations about public memory and symbols of hate were also held “Up South.” The Pittsburgh Art Commission voted to remove the monument to Stephen Foster, the “Father of American Music,” who is memorialized with a barefoot slave seated at his feet.

Stephen Foster
A task force appointed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the removal of the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who operated on enslaved African American women to develop advances in gynecological surgery.

#FrankRizzo - Dr. J. Marion Sims2

In Philadelphia, calls grew louder for Mayor Jim Kenney to remove the monument memorializing Frank Rizzo, a former mayor. As police commissioner, Rizzo presided over a police department whose practice of beatings “shocks the conscience.” That was the finding of the U.S. Justice Department which, in 1979, filed an unprecedented civil lawsuit against the city over its abusive policing tactics.

#FrankRizzo - Justice Department Collage

On the eve of the first anniversary of Charlottesville, Kenney did an about-face and said the Rizzo monument would stay at the gateway to municipal services for at least two to three years. The Mayor claims he is concerned about “incurring additional costs” of $200,000 $100,000. Truth be told, the police department will likely spend at least $100,000 quarterly protecting a monument to police brutality, racial bigotry and misogyny.

Frank Rizzo Statue Surrounded by Police and Barricades

But get this: Kenney presides over a city government that spent $5 million on a computer system and has nothing to show for it. Also, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart recently reported the city cannot account for a whopping $33 million in taxpayers’ money.

The Philadelphia Inquirer called out Kenney on his flip-flop:

Mayor Kenney has taken pains to publicly underscore the value of our city as welcoming and diverse. That’s a message undercut by the delay in moving the controversial statue that for some stands for oppression. That it was confirmed so near the anniversary of Charlottesville is sadly tone-deaf — especially at a time when better listening is critical.

Meanwhile, Frank Rizzo Jr. said that if his father’s statue is removed, “there’s going to be a fight.” Listen up, Junior: It’s on.