I see some people saying Mark Squilla couldn’t have known ahead of time he would be lending his official support to what Gawker called a “white lives matter” rally, organized in response to an incident where a white woman was attacked by a group of black women in her home.
I don’t know enough to know whether the complaint about the insufficient police response is legitimate, but I do know about Googling people, and it seems clear Squilla should’ve known better than to throw his lot in with this crew.
The debate over whether politicians can be held accountable for their supporters’ signs always crops up in these cases, and of course you can’t hold an elected official responsible for every last sign at an event, but that argument falls apart in this case, because it all comes down to who the event was organized by, and the historical context of race relations in Whitman.
The “Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back” Facebook page condones a lot of thinly-veiled–and often not-veiled–racism, and Jack Owens is a known racist. I’m not going to post them on here because they’re really disgusting, but check out the Gawker page of screenshots of stuff Owens has shared with his friends on his (now archived) Facebook page. N-words galore!
So if you’re the Councilman, and Jack Owens calls you up inviting you to his rally, you say no. Because he’s a racist. And because you know that the people he’s going to invite to the event aren’t going to be the type of people who think this was just a really awful crime by some individuals, but rather believe that this incident is proof the whole neighborhood is under attack by all black people.
There are plenty of ways the Councilman could have communicated his responsiveness to the community concerns about an incomplete police response, like a press statement or attending a community forum about it.
The trouble is that Whitman is where Squilla’s bread is buttered. This is his voting base. He was the president of the civic association there before he was elected Councilman in 2011.
Whitman is an area with a track record of some serious racial ugliness. The neighborhood was the scene of some really insane desegregation battles back during the Rizzo administration, with white residents threatening bombings and bloodshed to stop construction of some PHA townhouses, because they would have brought non-white residents to the neighborhood.
While in the Porter Street house, Bantner was called to the telephone to speak to Fred Druding, the Whitman Council President, who told him that there would be bloodshed if Bantner’s company built the development. He was told by Druding, “if you don’t want to see bloodshed, you better stop [Jolly Co. personnel]” from coming to Philadelphia that day.
All those in the Porter Street house said that they would stop the job. According to Bantner, they said that they could not control their young people; he was warned, “don’t ever let my life depend on the Philadelphia police to stop them because they wouldn’t.” Bantner was told also that human bodies would be placed under the wheels of the trucks and that residents would get on top of trucks and form human rings around the site. Local residents in the Porter Street house also made reference to bombs.
While Bantner was in the house, Whitman residents screamed at him and shook their fingers in his face. He had never seen such hostility, and he felt so threatened that he wanted to get out of town quickly, forget the construction business and never come back to work.
Every year, Philly has a tradition of debating how racist the Mummers Parade still is, and how much that matters, and to give the statewide readers the geographical context, a lot of the Mummers clubs are around that area of South Philly. Remember earlier this year when that guy had the “Wench Lives Matter” sign, and some other guys were still wearing blackface, even though it was officially banned from the parade in 1964? Clearly the area still has some issues.
To circle back to the issue at hand, being a progressive leader representing an area like this is hard, but at base you need to push back on incitement and ugliness like this, and use your position to cool things down, not rile people up. If there’s a legitimate breach of justice, you obviously have to speak to that, but you need to sideline the racist hotheads. You can’t get up there with a megaphone in the middle of it all because that’s just going to embolden them.