Last year’s protests for racial justice changed Philadelphia politics.
But how much has changed — and how long it will last — remains unclear.
Perhaps political dynamics have “changed significantly in every way imaginable,” as City Councilmember Cherelle Parker said.
Maybe there’s growing support for progressive policies, as Councilmember Kendra Brooks said, with “more of a collective push from everyone.”
Or, as others fear, the current focus could be little more than momentary political theater. “There’s rhetoric on one side and then there’s inaction on the other,” said Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-operative.
A year after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, memories are still fresh in Philadelphia of police shelling tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters, of burning cop cars and looted stores, a West Philadelphia neighborhood besieged by police, and of tens of thousands of protesters marching on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to demand justice for Black lives. All of it against the backdrop of the pandemic, which laid bare long-standing inequities.
» READ MORE: They said his name: How George Floyd changed a city 1,100 miles away
Racial equity and systemic racism are now a primary focus in City Hall, shaping policymaking and the electoral calculus for candidates. But disagreements remain on issues such as policing, housing, and taxes as the city recovers from the pandemic.
The demonstrations also brought intense scrutiny to Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. The police response to the protests, including the teargassing of protesters on I-676 and in a predominantly Black neighborhood, was the first in a series of controversies that caused community backlash against Kenney, emboldened Council, and brought about the resignations of the city managing director and public health commissioner.
In an interview, Kenney reiterated apologies for authorizing the use of tear gas and said the protests made the city better.
“The city is more mature for the protests,” he said. “The city is more cognizant of its failings and failures and its history.”
» READ MORE: Kenney had plans. Then the pandemic hit. Can he avoid lame-duck status and get Philly ‘back on track’?
Kimberly S. Adams, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University, said national attention to police violence against Black Americans has put pressure on elected officials. And record turnout among young voters in 2020, as well as young people and Black women running for office in unprecedented numbers, point to the possibility of a longer-term electoral shift.
”I think a lot of these young people understand what’s at stake,” she said, “because they saw, and many of them came of age during the Trump administration.”
Councilmember Allan Domb said every hearing in the last year — from sheriff sales to vaccine distribution — has included a focus on systemic racism.
“It’s impacted every aspect of Council deliberations,” Domb said.
That focus hasn’t meant universal agreement on how best to further racial justice in the city. And some lawmakers said it’s not their policy preferences that have shifted, just the attention they’ve gotten.
» READ MORE: One year after police teargassed 676, protesters recount how it changed them
Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he and his colleagues have long cared about reducing poverty and racial inequity in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country.
After Floyd’s murder, Clarke said, “it was just magnified by the press and other people who wouldn’t normally pay attention to the nuances of policy.”
Councilmember Helen Gym, who doesn’t always agree with Clarke on policy, also said issues that received more national attention in the last year — such as policing, evictions, and juvenile justice — “have long been housed and experienced within communities” in Philadelphia.
That attention makes a difference, they agreed, with Gym calling the current moment a “historic inflection point.”
“The hardest thing we had to overcome was the belief that things could change,” Gym said. “Right now at this point in history we see more energy, more engagement.”
The new attention has helped revive past policy efforts and support new ones.
For example, Clarke failed to enact a construction tax in 2018 amid opposition from developers, building trades unions, and Kenney. But that effort succeeded in December and will fund a $400 million bond to fight poverty and increase affordable housing.
Racial equity is also at the center of budget negotiations this year. And councilmembers are framing their policy arguments around the issue.
Domb, a business-friendly Democrat and condo developer, is continuing to push to reduce wage and business taxes. While that effort has long been a goal of the business community, Domb is arguing this year that Philadelphia’s tax structure is a reason why it lags behind other cities in availability of well-paying jobs and Black- and brown-owned businesses.
» READ MORE: Philly Mayor Jim Kenney promised police reform. It’s a work in progress a year later.
Brooks said the protests did alter Council’s agenda. Her 2019 election as a member of the Working Families Party represented a major victory for Philadelphia’s progressive movement, but she said she was initially fighting an uphill battle on issues like investing in neighborhoods and affordable housing instead of police.
Not anymore, she said: “I haven’t received major pushback this year.”
The protests have also reshaped the political calculus of running for office, observers said. A case in point was District Attorney Larry Krasner’s victory over challenger Carlos Vega in last month’s Democratic primary.
Philadelphia’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, backed Vega and attacked Krasner, a criminal justice reform advocate. While the FOP nod was a prized endorsement in the past, Krasner used it to brand Vega as a candidate who favors a return to “law and order” politics.
“People thought that, because our city was experiencing gun violence, folks would forget everything that happened last summer,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said. “The public is wanting investments in people, in communities, and they’re not just asking for a law enforcement approach.”
» READ MORE: Philly DA Larry Krasner’s big win is a huge loss for the police union that tried to stop him
Still, some racial justice activists and lawmakers are skeptical that politicians’ promises of change will translate to real action.
“They have to say certain things now that they can’t hide from, because the uprising was so in our face, it was so present, it was so personal,” said Muhammad, a West Philadelphia-based organizer and writer. “But I don’t think that they have moved much.”
“Nothing materially changes in the city from words,” they said.
Some activists also criticize a continued gap between pushes to disinvest in police and fund community-oriented initiatives, and the current policy.
Muhammad pointed to the 13 demands made by the Black Philly Radical Collective in June 2020, which included instituting an “immediate” 20% reduction in the police budget.
But Kenney this year proposed keeping the police budget flat — while including new investments and reforms for the department, tucked into other departments’ budgets.
Kenney’s proposed budget doesn’t reflect real transformative change, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said.
“People are saying all the right things, but we’re still doing the same thing, and this budget is evidence of that,” she said.
Going forward, Quiñones-Sánchez said the protests will push elected officials to present bolder ideas.
“Politicians tend to want to play it safe,” she said. “Now people are like, ‘No, we don’t want you to play it safe.’”
» READ MORE: Mayor Kenney said his budget wouldn’t increase police spending. It’s not that simple.
Nicolas O’Rourke, director of organizing with the Working Families Party, said that he’s been encouraged by some of the progress but that “much more work remains to be done.”
He called the establishment of a new police oversight body a year after Floyd’s murder “a good step in the right direction, but woefully short of what we’re looking for.”
Parker, the Council majority leader, said she’s hopeful that lawmakers’ commitment to racial justice will continue, keeping the protest movement from being just a “microwave moment,” or a short and intense period of heightened attention.
“It can be a microwave moment for those people who have the ability to take on and take off their concern for this issue,” Parker said. “This is not a microwave moment for me. The only way you can measure that work is by the outcomes.”
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