The Philadelphia Inquisition
Its two weapons are fear and surprise . . . and ruthless inefficiency.
May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
It’s unclear how many people in the city even care about the magazine controversy. About 50 people showed up for the Human Relations Commission meeting in the auditorium at Girard, though that number drops to about 30 once you subtract the commission’s members, staff, event photographer, sound guy, and two interpreters for the deaf.
The commissioners took seats at a long table on the stage above the crowd, and the hearing began with a statement from the acting chairman, Thomas H. Earle. He assured the audience that the commission respects the First Amendment. “Still,” he said, “we are disappointed that the magazine has chosen to pass up the opportunity to participate in a real dialogue with a larger, more diverse group of residents than what was reflected in its article and to gain a fuller understanding of actual intergroup relations in the extended Brewerytown Fairmount community.”
After that, the commission heard from the public. Almost none of the speakers were there simply because they are outraged at Philadelphia magazine. In fact, they’d avail themselves of any opportunity to get city officials to pay attention to the problems of North Philly and said as much. More than one elderly African American complained about high taxes. One woman complained that the hipster parents in her neighborhood are now holding parent-teacher meetings in “a saloon.” That revelation elicited a visible reaction from one commissioner, former mosque leader Saadiq Abdul-Jabbar Garner.
Mayor Nutter seems to have vastly overestimated the article’s “potentially inflammatory effect” on the city. “I didn’t want to waste my energy dealing with ignorance,” Alex Peay, founder of the Rising Sons mentoring and tutoring program, told the commission. “There are a few things in that article that sort of made sense, too. Because there are some issues going on in our communities. There are kids out there who are selling drugs. . . . There are a lot of abandoned houses, and there’s a big swarm of gentrification going on.” Pat Edouard, also of Rising Sons, made the point even more bluntly—dealing with the city’s problems is more important than fretting over how they’re discussed. “Adults that speak up, black or white . . . instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s racist!’—think. Is it? Or is it real?”
One notable exception to this down-playing of the magazine controversy came from Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia office. After a perfunctory lecture on the importance of the First Amendment, she offered the following: “I’d like to speak as a white person who lives in Philadelphia for more than 25 years. . . . As a white person, I was deeply embarrassed by that magazine article, and that did not speak for me.” The PHRC can rest easy about putting the press on the hot seat. The ACLU may give a nod to the First Amendment, but in this particular instance their heart’s not in it.
Almost an hour and a half in, Mayor Nutter showed up at the meeting. He did his best to sound outraged. “Completely unbalanced piece of psuedo-journalism . . . hateful stereotyping . . . harmful stereotyping . . . self-styled zeal.” Alas, no one was there from Philadelphia magazine to be called hateful by the mayor, and when Nutter was told this he said, “That’s tragic. It truly saddens me.”
The mayor continues: “I believe in the First Amendment as much as any other”—this is demonstrably not true—“but given the nature of the controversy that has ensued it seems to me that you would want to be respectful to the citizens of Philadelphia, even to your readers, regardless of where they live”—Philadelphia magazine sells a lot of copies to white people in the suburbs, in case you didn’t get the hint—“to truly listen to more voices than were heard supposedly in that one particular piece and to demonstrate respect to the folks who are here to hear what really goes on in our neighborhoods. I think it’s a lost opportunity, but that’s life in the big city.”
Nutter left shortly after his speech, so he wasn’t around at the end of the meeting to hear Allison from the Francisville neighborhood tell the commission of her experience living in North Philly. “It’s not about racism. It’s about a sense of community and what we’re going to do about it,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m going to cry here. I was recently robbed after living there and knowing everyone on my street. And I had over $30,000 worth of stuff stolen. . . . And nothing has been done about it. What was taken from me was the stuff I had, and I had needed, and I had bought a home to be here, to raise a child.” Allison had big plans that had been destroyed. “What was taken from me was my ability to adopt.”
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