Let’s begin with some kudos. Hats off to the Philadelphia Theatre Company for staging Rizzo, stellar playwright Bruce Graham’s adaptation of Sal Paolantonio’s biography of the controversial, larger than life 1970s mayor. The play is finely crafted; actor Scott Greer doesn’t look like Rizzo, but becomes him, capturing both the chilling bellicosity and ethnic charm of the South Philly beat cop who rose to mayor.
Regional theater that brings to life its own city’s history—even when said history is fraught with so much baggage, as is the case with Rizzo—can only be a civically health thing. Next May, PTC will be at it again, staging American Canvas, a play about 19th Century Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins. For those of us who know little about Eakins other than that we have an oval named after him, PTC will once again be adding to our own understanding of ourselves.
When I read that, following a performance of Rizzo last week, there would be a panel discussion featuring four old white dudes—political consultants Larry Ceisler and Citizen contributor Ken Smukler, the aforementioned Paolantonio, former Inquirer political writer Dick Polman—I got the urge to take in the play with what the usual theatre-going crowd might consider some unusual suspects. So I recruited a diverse, dynamic posse, and off we went.
The timing for this Rizzo retrospective couldn’t be more well-timed. Fifteen years after his death, Rizzo has been back in the news of late, when the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice started a petition to take down the statue honoring him in front of the Municipal Services Building. As the play captures, Rizzo was a legendarily divisive figure, a Trumpian “law and order” man who seemed to sanction the busting of heads. In the 1970s, the United States Justice Department sued Rizzo for a pattern of unlawful police conduct that included “physical abuse, unlawful use of deadly force and disciplinary procedures which condoned abuse.”
Our plan was to see the play and have a wide-ranging discussion afterwards, over some good food and drink. Here’s our cast of characters:
Erica Atwood, 41, is the CEO of First Degree Consulting and was Mayor Michael Nutter’s Director of Black Engagement.
Elissa Prichep, 36, is an executive in the pharmaceutical industry and an active Republican and civic leader.
Anthony Smith, 24, is an activist and member of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, which continues to protest the Rizzo statue.
We began with a summary of our reactions to the play.
LP: So what did you think?
ATWOOD: I went in wondering if we’d see how bad Rizzo was. I didn’t see that. I saw how they humanized him. And how they made him laughable. And that for me was uncomfortable. This is not a play for black people. There’s no necessity for black people to come see this play, because we live this experience every day. So the constant reminders of the legacy of racism and the legacy of stop and frisk, we don’t need to be entertained by it.
SMITH: It was more holistic than I expected. I thought it was going to be, like, ‘Frank Rizzo was this great guy.’But you see him coercing reporters, being racist and homophobic. So that’s good information to have. The play raises issues about the racial divide in Philadelphia. My problem comes in if the public has no intention of addressing those issues, particularly around policing. It’s not that people don’t know and don’t do anything about. People know and don’t do anything about it.
LP: I also expected more of a love letter to Rizzo, but I felt I was watching Mussolini. Here was a dictator. In the panel discussion after the play, Sal [Paolantonio] shared that they added the line “Let’s make Philadelphia great again,” which, of course, prompted all sorts of Trump comparisons.
ATWOOD: I feel like this play humanizes Rizzo as this funny, affable guy who was just another racist from down the block who, when it came down to it, would do right by you. I saw a white savior, I saw a racist.
PRICHEP: I thought Rizzo was portrayed as a demagogue, particularly in the latter half of the play. He played on a lot of fears, he played on a lot of community divisions. The play didn’t really get into a lot of details of what he was going to do, other than keep you safe. So it was very reminiscent of some of the conversations happening now.
LP: Anthony, before the show you and Erica, as African Americans, expressed a certain amount of dread over seeing this play. Can you explain how you were feeling beforehand, and after?
SMITH: Well, first of all, I do want to acknowledge that this is a play and it’s meant to entertain. I went into it understanding that I’m probably going to laugh. I watch plays all the time. But the packaging of Frank Rizzo as done by academics who weren’t negatively affected by him is so much different than how folks who actually lived under his reign view him. I’ve talked to elders in the black community who were literally afraid to come out of their house because of this man. This person regularly provided a community of people the worst days of their lives. I don’t know why we’re considering Rizzo in this ‘Let’s look at both sides’ context. You don’t get to crack people’s heads open and have a debate about both sides.
ATWOOD: When you talk about legacy and Rizzo, there’s a legacy within the police force that carried over into the Goode administration. Yes, while Mayor Goode was at the helm during the MOVE bombing, and I’m not excusing Mayor Goode, it was also still Frank Rizzo’s police force.
Smith: I was raised in West Philly, so the people who owned the corner store, they were Hispanic or Chinese, and the people with the carts were Middle Eastern. It wasn’t until I moved to a white community that I learned what diversity was—because I wasn’t in it. I could tell I was black from how people treated me.
LP: Which is depicted in the play, because he still has control of the cops while a private citizen.
PRICHEP: How much of Rizzo’s legacy do you think lingers now in the police department?
ATWOOD: In my opinion, bringing in Commissioner Ramsey changed a lot of the legacy of racism and Rizzo in the police force. There’s still a lot of work to do, but Commissioner Ramsey made it a little bit easier to dismantle.
SMITH: As far as Charles Ramsey, I have had direct contact with these folks. And I have nothing positive to say about the police force. Now Kenney? A large portion of the black vote he got was because he said he was against stop and frisk. And he got in and reversed himself on stop and frisk. The state of police and community relations is terrible now. I’m not under the myth that policing has gotten any better since Rizzo’s day.
LP: Well, does that come from your experience? As a young black man in Philly, what are your interactions with the police like?
SMITH: Well, first I want to say my experience is not so traumatic compared to other black kids I know and talk to. I was first stopped and frisked at 10, but I didn’t know that was bad at the time.
PRICHEP: My God—at 10?
SMITH: Yeah, if you go to a middle school and ask kids about their bad experiences with the police, they all have them. They just don’t know who to tell. I remember going home and my mom was furious and I was scared. I didn’t know what to do—the police did it, but the police are the good guys, so what am I supposed to do? So I rationalized. I was hearing gunshots everyday, there was lots of drugs and crime, so I thought, ‘Maybe police do need to come down here and run through some pockets and make sure everybody is cool, right?’ Maybe that’s what they need to do.’ It wasn’t until 10 years later and I’m at college and I’m watching these white folks, snorting [cocaine] and smoking weed and domestic violence cases and beating each other up on campus, and I’m like, ‘Where the fuck are the police at?’ You know what I mean? Either the situation I was in should have been handled differently, or what these white folks were doing should have been handled differently.
ATWOOD: I have a question. Did you have the talk before or after that incident?
SMITH: I never really had the talk. My mother was a really big believer in—
ATWOOD: If you do right—
SMITH: Right. She’s very religious, so all her teachings came under spirituality and she never wanted to get into politics. I was raised in West Philly, so the people who owned the corner store, they were Hispanic or Chinese, and the people with the carts were Middle Eastern. It wasn’t until I moved to a white community that I learned what diversity was—because I wasn’t in it. I could tell I was black from how people treated me.
ATWOOD: It was different for me. I was always told I was black, I was always told to be careful, I was always told what to expect in majority white environments. You’re 24? I’m 41. So having almost 20 years between us, it’s a very different thing. The first time I got called ‘nigger’ I was 5, almost 6. I’d gone down to Virginia and there was a little girl who lived next door to my grandparents and she didn’t like that I was on the swings as long as I was, and she said, ‘Get off the swings, nigger.’ That was my experience. But I was prepared. My mother had a conversation with me at 5 or 6.
LP: Elissa, you look like your jaw’s dropped.
PRICHEP: My jaw has dropped several times, but especially when you said, Anthony, that the first time you felt discriminated against was when you went into a white neighborhood. My heart broke. It hurts deeply. I’m Jewish, and I’ve felt anti-Semitism. Nobody should do that to anybody else and to know that I could have been a member of that community and my potential neighbors could have done that, it breaks my heart.
Atwood: We need to do the both/and. I’m willing to play the inside game—I don’t need you, Anthony, to play the inside game. More important in these multi-generational conversations, is to discuss who is willing to go inside and who is going to shake the tree outside.
LP: Let me play devil’s advocate when it comes to Rizzo. In the ’91 campaign, Rizzo, had he lived, was expected to win the black vote versus Rendell. In part, that was because Rendell had gone back on his commitment to the black clergy that he wouldn’t challenge Wilson Goode in ’87. Does that, along with the fact that Rizzo hired and promoted black cops in the police department, mitigate against the charge that he was racist? His argument was always that he wasn’t racist—he kept black people safe.
SMITH: Let’s assume he had no bad intentions, and he did hire and promote black people. But when you put a person from an oppressed demographic in a system that oppresses black people, you don’t help anybody. It’s not like I need black police in the police force. I just need the police to stop killing black people.
PRICHEP: Right, that’s a very superficial argument to say that, because you look like somebody else looks, you’ll treat them the same and you’ll be fairer.
SMITH: Obama gets elected, and there are people saying, ‘How can you talk about racism when the president is black?’ Well, the mayor that dropped the bomb on MOVE was black, you know?
PRICHEP: Obviously, my experience has been completely different from yours. I never had the talk. When I moved to the Art Museum area, I lived next to the police precinct and the conversation was always, ‘Wow, that’s great, you’re a single female who walks her dog at night and the police are right there, you’ll be safe.’ It was like there would be a safety patrol around me—a completely different perspective. This was talked about in the play, we have two different Americas. The reason I’m happy we’re having this conversation is that I don’t know that that many people talk about it. It troubles me, because you can’t have a strong country that’s permanently divided. So what’s the root cause and how do we get through it?
ATWOOD: There’s a social and a systems level to this. On the social level, it’s about having larger conversations like this and making them multi-generational. That is huge. Also there’s a systems conversation, in how do we get more non-black accomplices to help dismantle systems that put us all at an economic disadvantage?
LP: We’ve done a good job of electing black leaders, black chiefs of police departments. And yet that hasn’t necessarily led to reform. Remember when John Street said the “brothers and sisters are in charge”? It’s as if a whole generation of black leaders thought that getting into power was the reform itself, instead of an opportunity to change the system going forward, no matter the race of whom sat on top of it.
Prichep: I lived next to the police precinct and the conversation was always, ‘Wow, that’s great, you’re a single female who walks her dog at night and the police are right there, you’ll be safe.’ It was like there would be a safety patrol around me—a completely different perspective. This was talked about in the play, we have two different Americas.
PRICHEP: That’s like, in major corporations, we talk a lot about the advancement of women in business, but just because you might have one woman in a C level position, it doesn’t mean there’s equality.
SMITH: Right, right. Look, the Coalition obviously has the petition to remove the Rizzo statue, but that’s literally to facilitate the conversation around policing. The real question is are you willing to admit that we’ve had decades in this city of ridiculous policing? Are you willing to say, ‘You know what, man? The reason I feel so comfortable is that I’m willing to pay Indonesian kids slave wages? That’s why I have access to all my clothes, because I exploit children in other countries for slave labor.’ Are you willing to accept that the reason police are more friendly in your community than they are in mine is because of racism? Cops may not wake up in the morning and say ‘I hate black people’ but the system commands them to act in this way.
PRICHEP: So let me ask you both a question. Are you optimistic about the future of race relations?
ATWOOD: I’m optimistic about Anthony’s generation and what the twenty somethings are going to do. But am I optimistic about the system of politics? Fuck, no.
SMITH: I’m just very tired of the engagement being primarily focused on politics. I’m 24 and my father is Jamaican and my mother is African-American. So I come from a part immigrant, part black family. I had never grown up with a reason to engage in the system, and after learning why the places I came from were so ridiculously totaled, it’s very difficult for me to be optimistic. This isn’t new. The core issue in a lot of movements has always been, do I engage with the system or do I just completely disregard it, organize my community, and dismantle it?
ATWOOD: Why is it not a both/and? We need to do the both/and. I’m willing to play the inside game—I don’t need you, Anthony, to play the inside game. More important in these multi-generational conversations, is to discuss who is willing to go inside and who is going to shake the tree outside.
PRICHEP: Historically, a lot of movements start in the community and the last thing they are is codified.
SMITH: But once they are, you see a very diluted movement. So when I see that, it’s natural for me to say I would never do that.
PRICHEP: That’s fine, but you probably also have allies who would be willing to help you in your cause. And they cannot do what you do, and you cannot do what they do.
Smith: I was first stopped and frisked at 10, but I didn’t know that was bad at the time. If you go to a middle school and ask kids about their bad experiences with the police, they all have them. They just don’t know who to tell. I didn’t know what to do—the police did it, but the police are the good guys, so what am I supposed to do?
SMITH: Yeah, but can I imagine myself talking to Mayor Kenney about the police? I can’t see it. I have a cousin locked up for selling weed while companies are planning on moving into Philly and selling weed—
ATWOOD: And making millions—
SMITH: And my cousin’s not going to get out of prison. That’s my actual reality. I don’t have the time for talking. No, once I go out here, I might go to prison for a very long time. Or the police might shoot me. That’s my actual reality.
LP: The first person I invited tonight, she responded to my invitation by saying I’m not a token brown person who you can call upon to teach white people not to be racist. I said, Look, I was just inviting you to be a part of a conversation. But I also want to check myself—do you see the invitation to have this discussion as somehow an expression of white privilege?
SMITH: We had an action in solidarity with the uprising in Charlotte. A white guy came by and was asking all sorts of questions. I was just like, ‘I don’t got time to explain shit to you.’ You can either stand in solidarity or leave. Nine times out of 10, white folks just want to talk. They want to understand and then go home like nothing happened.
PRICHEP: But I think you need understanding before you take action. It’s human behavior. Until you’re aware and you understand, you’re not going to act.
PRICHEP: So it’s a great question. I’m Jewish, and when somebody asks me, ‘What does this holiday mean?’ Or ‘Why don’t you eat pork?’ I love it, because it gives me the opportunity to explain—which starts to create understanding. And then you ultimately strike more alliances.
ATWOOD: There’s an appropriateness of dialogue. So that is not to come into a synagogue when you’re worshipping on Rosh Hashanah and have a conversation.
PRICHEP: I agree with you. You have to be respectful, and asking questions of you during a protest isn’t the time and place. But when it comes to having dinner after a play to discuss racial issues? I just think that, in order to overcome ignorance you have to be able to ask a question and have somebody respond. This conversation has been great. But I always want to know, okay, what do we actually do? I’m not quite sure, Anthony, if you’re saying you’re so pessimistic that nothing’s going to change, so why bother? Or are you saying that, as a Philadelphian, here’s what people can do to start making progress?
Smith: My optimism lies in the ability to engage with the community. My priority is organizing the door to door community, people who work every day, and that includes poor white communities. I think we’re all connected—poor communities in North Philly and poor white folk in Kensington. These are the places where All Lives Matter activists won’t go, where people are suffering.
SMITH: I’m definitely pessimistic all the way to the max in terms of engaging in the political system. But my optimism lies in the ability to engage with the community. My priority is organizing the door to door community, people who work every day, and that includes poor white communities. I think we’re all connected—poor communities in North Philly and poor white folk in Kensington. These are the places where All Lives Matter activists won’t go, where people are suffering.
ATWOOD: Elissa, there are literal ways the white community can support the work of Anthony and anyone seeking to dismantle racist systems. On a policy level, data needs to be disaggregated in a way that it’s not currently. For example, there are disparities in the Asian community we don’t know exist because the data doesn’t tell us. We know it in a qualitative and not quantitative way. We know that if you come from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos that you fall within some similar socio-economic disparities as black men and boys. But data doesn’t collect that way, so we need more folks on the inside to start to push for disaggregating data not just by race but by ethnicity. Two, we need capacity building support. That means a lot of things. It does mean your money—you don’t show up, you give $35 every week. It also means you help us with workshops around certain things you’re an expert in. You don’t have to show up on the front lines to give us your level of expertise.
LP: I always thought that white people should go out of our way to put ourselves in rooms where we’re in the minority. That’s how you become empathetic.
ATWOOD: Yes! How about joining the African American museum and taking your kids, because me and mine had to learn your history my whole life!
LP: On that note, I want to thank you guys for such a candid conversation.Photo header: Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries