In Your Neighborhood

A strange Philly moment: Frank Rizzo and me

An improbable encounter in Philadelphia, a stark reminder about how police brutality and racism have dominated our political landscape for much too long

Photograph courtesy of Richard Asinof

A photograph of Mayor Frank Rizzo shaking hands in front of the seal of Philadelphia at City Hall in 1973.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/8/20
A strange tale shared about a photo taken with Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the seal of Philadelphia.
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The managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after a headline appeared in the newspaper, “Buildings matter, too,” a sign that although the statues and murals of former Mayor Frank Rizzo have disappeared, the lingering racism embedded in many parts of society, including daily newspapers, is still a problem. Similar issues have arisen in Pittsburgh, where black reporters and photographers were unable to cover protests in the city.

PROVIDENCE – The mural of Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo at the Italian Market on the border of South Philadelphia has been painted over. The brass statue of Rizzo in downtown Philadelphia has been removed on orders of the current Mayor.

As we enter this new age of Black Lives Matter, the public images of the former police chief and mayor in the City of Brotherly Love – who personified police brutality directed against blacks and gays, who once challenged the head of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia to a shoot-out, mano a mano, at high noon on Broad Street, in front of City Hall in 1967, and who once told the Pope “to break the heads” of demonstrators in Italian – have been vanquished.

Rizzo had served as an indelible symbol of racism and police brutality, wrapped up in the respectability of being a police chief and mayor of a major American city. There was nothing subtle about his blatant approach and there was no way to underestimate the dangers of finding yourself on the wrong side of the law on the mean streets of Philadelphia during the time when Rizzo ruled.

A strange tale
Before there was Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, before there was President Donald Trump, always ready to have a photographer snap a photo, there was Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo.

A framed black-and-white, 8 x 10 glossy photo of myself and Mayor Frank Rizzo, autographed, “Richard, best wishes, Frank Rizzo,” as we shook hands in front of the seal of Philadelphia at City Hall following a news conference April of 1973, still graces the wall of my abode. With the demise of the mural and statue depicting Frank Rizzo, maybe now is an appropriate time to take down the photo, too.

The story of that strange photo and how it came to be is a reminder of the kind of brazen, courageous if not foolhardy approach I took, willing to stand up and take risks in the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way as a young upstart reporter for the alternative weeklies in Philadelphia, The Drummer and The Daily Planet.

It also serves as a poignant memory of the lessons learned during my stint serving as a volunteer legal staff member with the American Civil Liberties Union office in Philadelphia, handling prison visitation at Montgomery County Prison in Norristown. In particular, it is the story of what had happened when one of my “clients” in the jail was brutally beaten up by a prison guard, which resulted in the client being hospitalized with a broken jaw.

Back to the future
The summer before my year in Philadelphia, I had finagled press credentials to cover the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, as one of the editors of Climax, the student newspaper at Hampshire College, which resulted in my getting a story published in Seventeen Magazine, “Notes on my first convention.”

A year later, I sent a letter requesting a chance to interview the mayor for a college project on “urban law” in Philadelphia. The mayor’s office had responded with an invitation to attend the next news conference. I arranged for a portable Sony black-and-white half-inch video camera to be borrowed from the Great Lakes College Association urban semester program and to enlist a friend to record the event.

The news conference was itself uneventful. Afterward, when I was called up to meet Mayor Rizzo, we chatted as we shook hands, and a photographer snapped a photograph.

The problem was, neither he nor I would be the first to let go, as we continued to shake hands, for more than two minutes. That awkward moment is preserved on half-inch videotape, somewhere in my five-draw metal filing cabinets in my storage facility. I finally let go.

A week later after my encounter, I received a glossy black-and-white photo inscribed by a message in a thick, black marker: “Richard, best wishes, Frank Rizzo.”

Who was taking whom?
There was no way I should have been granted an opportunity to meet with Mayor Rizzo. The fact that I was working as a volunteer legal staff member with the Philadelphia office of the American Civil Liberties Union should have been an immediate disqualifier. Rizzo, the former police chief in Philadelphia, had predicted that Spencer Coxe, the director of the ACLU office where I worked, would jump off a bridge and commit suicide if Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971. Coxe did not oblige. [Further, my work as a journalist was probably an even bigger disqualifier.]

There I was, a 20-year-old college student, with my long hair pulled back in a ponytail, with long sideburns, with geeky glasses and thick lenses, with connections to both the ACLU and the alternative press. I always thought of the photograph as a badge of honor, that it was possible to stand up to bullies, no matter what the risk.

Lost in translation
Today, few people outside of Philadelphia have any idea who Frank Rizzo was, and when guests encounter the photograph, it had often required a story to try to explain what the photograph symbolized.

The stories about police brutality practiced under Rizzo's regime against blacks and gays are legendary. That year there was murder trial of police officers that allegedly threw some Native American steelworkers to their death out a hotel window; the officers were found innocent.

In October of 1972, I covered a Black Panther Survival Conference in North Philadelphia where free bags of groceries and shoes were handed out to children and families. I tried to find members of the Black Panthers to interview at the event, but they had all been arrested and thrown into the Roundhouse drunk tank at police headquarters, awaiting trial.

I myself had the badge of honor of being arrested in Philadelphia, brutalized by Philly cops, and kept in the overcrowded drunk tank at the Round House at Police Headquarters for more than 24 hours before the charges were dropped. That is another story for another day.

Why I chose not to become a lawyer

I still recall my conversation with Warden Roth at Montgomery County Prison, when I asked to see my client, Immanuel, only to be told that he was not available.

Why not? I asked.

“He broke his jaw.”

How did he manage that?

“He took a swing at a guard and missed.”

I’m trying to imagine that. A prisoner takes a swing at a guard, misses, and falls down and breaks his jaw.

“He had to be restrained.”

Can I visit him in the hospital?

“No.”

For weeks on end, Immanuel had used his 15 minutes of time visiting with me to let go of his anger, shouting over and over again. “They can’t do this to me.” He was in jail for an alleged parole detainer violation, where the Norristown police arrested anyone on parole when they couldn’t solve a crime. While an “arrest” is not a technical violation of parole, in Norristown, it became a way of keeping folks in jail. Almost every client I visited in jail as a representative of the ACLU was doing time for such a parole violation.

The last time I saw Immanuel, after the ACLU had filed a writ of mandamus to allow me to visit him in jail, for the first and only time, he was smiling, even though his jaw was wired shut. “I finally got the system by the balls,” he told me, because he was going to file a lawsuit against the prison for his injuries.

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