It’s been quite a week. I wouldn’t say that things started with the murder of George Floyd, because they started long before that. I worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia for seven years when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, taking mostly court appointments. I wasn’t a white knee-jerk liberal, and I wasn’t idealistic. But what I saw, and what I experienced changed how I see the world.
Many police departments have had toxic cultures when it comes to dealing with people of color. Philadelphia is no different. One of the most divisive figures in the city’s history has been Frank Rizzo who was the Police Commissioner from 1968 to 1971, and later, Mayor. There was a controversial mural of Rizzo not far from my house in the Italian Market. People in the neighborhood have been trying to get it removed for years. This week, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program ended involvement with the Frank Rizzo mural and it is going to be replaced with art more fitting for the neighborhood.
Likewise the bronze statue of Frank Rizzo that has stood before the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building since 1999 has been removed after years of argument over whether it should stay or go.
I said in the opening sentence of this post that the events of this week didn’t start with the murder of George Floyd. We all have a tenancy to ignore things that don’t affect us and to bury feelings that make us squirm. It’s only human, but it’s dangerous-like ignoring a chronic headache that turns out to be a brain tumor that could have been treated if only we had paid attention. And it’s only human to do things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. That’s dangerous too, We have to think about what we think about and we have to be aware of our history. If they don’t teach us in school, we have to find out for ourselves.
I invite you to have a peek into Philadelphia history of the 1870’s, the era of Reconstruction when slavery as a formal institution had ended in this country and when social parity for everyone seemed like it might even be achievable. Until it wasn’t.
It only took 147 years for Philadelphia to commemorate the work of Octavius Catto who was murdered in 1871 while helping black voters exercise their right to vote. Read the post, Octavius Catto’s Quest for Parity. Then understand that we must change, or this tumor we’ve been ignoring for so long will kill us.