Bridget A. Brody, C’22
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is much more than a home to 240,000 priceless objects (Rosenheck). The museum’s most visible public space, the iconic seventy-two steps leading up to the museum’s entrance, functions as a quintessential tourist attraction, while also serving as a crucial location for mass events and demonstrations. In the 1976 Oscar-winning film, Rocky, underdog Rocky Balboa’s training montage concludes on these iconic steps. This film tells the story of a boxer who beats the odds in a widely publicized match against the reigning heavyweight champion; the film showcases an underdog who is able to rise above expectations and prevail (Holzman). In 2006, a statue of Rocky, donated by actor and star of the movie, Sylvester Stallone, was placed at the bottom of the steps (Rosenheck). Over the years, the museum, and what has become known as “the Rocky Steps,” have become even more relevant to our ever-changing society, serving as a space for individuals and communities alike to come together to develop stories of resistance and community building, and to challenge the cultural hierarchies of the past (Rosenheck).
The story of the underdog ascending these iconic steps extends far beyond the original Rocky movies. Rocky’s grit and perseverance have become a symbol for the spirit of Philadelphia itself, inspiring Philadelphians to aspire to succeed in the face of challenges, just as Rocky did himself (Holzman). Rocky’s message that an underdog can rise above to become a champion through hard work, determination, persistence, and hustle echoes beyond his movies, and resonates in the gatherings of Philadelphians that occur on these steps (Balkin Bach). The site is surely meaningful in the context of the Rocky movies, but beyond its role as a tourist attraction, the Rocky Steps have become a place of cultural unity, uprising, protest, and change-seeking.
Since at least the 1980s, Philadelphians have been gathering on the steps to protest for a variety of causes and speak out against injustice. These protests embody Rocky’s same message: the underdog has the potential to rise up in the face of adversity.
On October 6, 1985, the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Southern Africa program sponsored a community rally against apartheid and the racist regime in South Africa on the steps of the Museum (Randolph). This protest demonstrated Philadelphians’ concern with the lack of human rights for Black South Africans, and showcased the people’s demand for change. Later that same month, on October 27, 1985, the Soviet Jewry Council of JCRC in cooperation with the Jewish Campus Activities Board, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Young Leadership Council of the Federation of Jewish Agencies and the Youth Council of JCRC coordinated the 17th annual Simchat Torah Rally for Soviet Jewry on these same steps of the Museum of Art (“Rally”). This community-wide event that took place on the Steps sought to speak out against the plight of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union, and to ultimately express solidarity with the Jews there. While these two protests were held in the same month, at the same spot, the demonstrators there stood for very different causes. These protests are alike, however, in that they embody the underdog standing up in the face of adversity, just as Rocky himself did in his movies.
While protestors at the steps often consist of minority groups, or those seeking to advocate for minorities, a very different kind of group held a demonstration at the steps on March 20, 2002 (Dugan). This took place one week after the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of accounting firm Arthur Anderson on one count of obstruction of justice and suggested that employees at the company facilitated document destruction (ABC News). Workers gathered on the Rocky Steps to protest in attempt to humanize the company and illustrate that thousands of hard-working people’s livelihoods were now at risk. While this protest consisted of white collar workers, their demonstrations are nevertheless reflective of people coming together to protest injustice and demand for change, consistent with the other messages that have been transmitted on the Steps.
These kinds of movements demanding change continue to persist in the twenty-first century. On June 23, 2016, Philadelphians again gathered on the Rocky Steps to protest gun violence, demanding that politicians pass gun control legislation following a shooting in Philadelphia’s Pulse Nightclub (Johanson). This anti-gun violence rally became an annual tradition to be repeated every June, known as “Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence.” Year after year, Philadelphians come together to raise awareness of the deadly epidemic and speak for the voiceless underdogs who have been murdered as a result. These gatherings served as a meeting ground for victims of gun violence to connect and stand together in demand for change, and each year more and more Philadelphians joined the fight (Ubiñas).
Following the inauguration of President Trump, local advocacy group Philly J20 Solidarity organized a non-traditional rally in the form of a dance party on the Steps in November of 2017 (Rosseau). This event intended to draw attention to the 230 people who were charged in January of that year for protesting the inauguration of Trump, most of whom were facing 60 years in prison. These protestors included, but were not limited to, those who were arrested en masse at the inauguration (Rosseau). With this, thousands of Philadelphians stood in solidarity with those whose voices were repressed in order to act as a physical line of defense against the government’s onslaught on human rights, serving as another example of the Steps being used as a space for change-seeking and advocacy for the underdog. A few months later, on January 20, 2018, thousands gathered again on the Rocky Steps to advocate women’s rights, again directing their messages of discontent to President Trump (“Women’s”). These demonstrations served as an opportunity for citizens to unite their voices to strive for change.
Further expression of such unity and change-seeking escalated on May 30, 2020, following the killing of George Floyd. On this day, many thousands of Philadelphians gathered in front of the Rocky Steps to protest and symbolize anti-establishment achievement (Marsden-Atlass). During this time, an ephemeral monument was created when the Rocky Statue featured a cardboard addition saying, “No Justice, No Peace,” symbolizing the change being sought by the Philadelphia’s own underdogs. On June 4, 2020, a die-in was staged, where protestors lay on the steps for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the same length of time that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd (Jones). The next day, a protester wrote the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s song “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” in colored chalk on the steps of the museum (Farr et al.). These peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against police brutality continued in Philadelphia for eight days straight. Almost a year later, on April 17, 2021, protestors again gathered on these same steps to continue their fight for police reform and accountability. The Rocky statue held a banner that read,“ KOPS AND KLAN GO HAND IN HAND” (Farr). The Rocky Steps served as an essential location for BLM supporters to rally together and demand change.
Further change was demanded in 2021 when pro-Palestine demonstrators gathered at the Steps on May 15 to share speeches and poetry (Ebrahimiji). These protests occurred in response to the Israeli military’s massive and deadly airstrikes on Gaza. Protestors gathered to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian community and demand for change. Months later, on July 18, 2021, around 200 Philadelphians again gathered on the Rocky Steps to challenge the Communist regime that has been governing Cuba for the past six decades, advocating for the need for democracy in Cuba. People across racial lines, ages, and places around Philadelphia alike came together to criticize Cuba’s government, economy, and lack of civil rights, along with the country’s slow response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Mijares Torres). These gatherings serve as a further embodiment of the Steps being used to provide cultural unity and advocacy for the underdog.
As students returned to their schools that same year, groups again used the Rocky Steps as a place for change-seeking. On October 2, 2021, students at the University of Pennsylvania and doctors at the Hospital of the University joined around 1,000 protestors on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, demanding abortion rights (Gebremeskel). This “Bans Off Our Bodies” movement for abortion rights followed the recent Texas abortion law that went into effect on September 1 (McCammon). On the Steps, people of all ages and backgrounds came together to fight for female rights and hear speeches from abortion rights advocates. Again, the Rocky Steps were utilized to embody Rocky’s message and provide unity to a group of underdogs advocating for change.
While interactions on these steps are each unique and involve different groups of people, each demonstration involves oppressed groups coming together in attempt to change their future. Museums themselves are interactive in nature, but it is not common that their entrances are as interactive as the Steps have proved to be. With this, the site transformed from a museum with some historical appearance and notoriety due to the Rocky movies, to a rallying space for civil disobedience and reformation.
The demonstrations that occurred on the Art Museum’s steps not only symbolize the people’s longing for change, but also Philadelphia itself, and the city’s determined spirit, embodied in the Rocky statue. This location was significant in the each of the rallies that occurred there in that it is symbolic of the needs of the people living there, and their feelings of belongingness to the spaces around them in Philly. Over the past half-century, many different groups have gathered outside the Museum of Art, and each group is able to create their own unique meanings from the same seventy-two steps. These rallies that occurred on the Steps illustrate the ways in which monuments themselves can not only reflect history, but shape history and spark future change. Certain monuments neglect certain groups of people, while others become a place of cultural embrace, and this is especially evident in the events that occurred in front of the Art Museum. The systemic qualities of monuments are able to be cultivated and projected into the future by centering on change (Marsden-Atlass). It therefore makes sense why extraordinary change is being embraced and advocated for in this kind of site that symbolizes the underdog in so many ways.
When asked about why the Rocky Steps continue to be utilized in this way so many decades post-Rocky, Sylvester Stallone explained, “because we are underdogs, and there’s very few things, iconic situations, that are accessible. You know you can’t borrow Superman’s cape. You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie. You are part of what the whole myth is” (Vitez). With this, Philadelphians of all backgrounds, ages, genders, races, religions, ethnicities, and social classes have felt inspired to come to the steps to embrace Rocky’s underdog nature, and to attempt to defy the odds and create change just as Rocky himself did.
Ultimately, the vehement movements of protest and change that began on these steps shed light on the ways in which collective memory and built heritage are a dynamic system between people and places. Monuments themselves have a way of making the city remember the past in certain ways, and also—as illustrated through the ephemeral monuments created during the many Rocky Steps protests—making the city look toward the future. With this, the Rocky Steps help to facilitate an ecology of memory—one of past underdogs, and present upstanders.
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