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Civility, We Hardly Knew Ye

When Black Lives Matter shut down a City Hall press conference, it was proof that shouting and name-calling have become our common language

When Black Lives Matter shut down a City Hall press conference, it was proof that shouting and name-calling have become our common language

There’s a dangerous epidemic sweeping the country, and it’s on full display in Philadelphia. In fact, we may be a dubious national leader in its spread.

I’m not talking about the opioid epidemic, though that also ought to be top of mind. No, I’m speaking about something just as fatal to the body politic: The widespread slaughter of civility.

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In case you missed it, earlier this week, two members of Black Lives Pennsylvania, Asa Khalif and Isaac Gardner, stormed into the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall, where the Mayor, Council President Darrell Clarke and others were announcing the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Action Plan, by all accounts, a forward-thinking strategy for cleaning up the city. But they wouldn’t get to talk about that. Watch the clip to see a snippet of what happened:

Khalif and Gardner are protesting the police shooting of one David Jones, who was shot in the back and killed by Philadelphia police in June. They interrupted and ultimately shut down the press conference—and pledge to shut down more—with their profanity-laced demands that Council President Clarke speak about the pursuit of justice as it pertains to Jones.

Anytime a citizen is shot in the back by police, there needs to be a prompt and fair investigation. In this case, more red flags were raised when it quickly became known that the officer in question, Ryan Pownall, had previously shot a suspect in the back. Most fair-minded Philadelphians would likely agree with Khalif and Gardner: Something here doesn’t smell right. We’d better get to the bottom of it.

But, when Khalif and Gardner showed up at City Hall this week, they knew that just such an investigation was already well underway. (In fact, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, in the days after the shooting, said the partial videotape of it he’d seen had given him “pause.”) No, Khalif and Gardner hijacked a City Hall press conference for no good reason other than to unleash an ugly primal scream. It was a type of civic terrorism, something that, in reaction to Trump’s incivility, seems to have become the favored response of the political left.

Khalif and Gardner hijacked a press conference for no good reason other than to unleash an ugly primal scream. It was a type of civic terrorism, something that, in reaction to Trump’s incivility, seems to have become the favored response of the political left.

We’ve seen this movie before, folks. In June, proponents of the soda tax used children as props and shouted down a City Hall hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Local Government Committee that was to look into the economic impact of the beverage tax. Protesters (with the Mayor’s tacit encouragement) chanted “This Is Our House,” implying that City Hall is a public space only for those with a certain point of view.

Other examples abound. A few years ago, union members took over City Council and prevented then-Mayor Michael Nutter from delivering his budget address. Elsewhere, did you see the one about the women kicked out of a Chicago lesbian march for celebrating their queer, Jewish identity by carrying rainbow flags embossed with the Star of David? Seriously: An organizer argued that anything that could “inadvertently or advertently express Zionism” was a “trigger” that made “people feel unsafe.” In Detroit, after catering a breakfast for Donald Trump, Jr., a restaurateur found her place of business boycotted.

Last year, a vigil for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting at the University of Missouri was commandeered by three Black Lives Matter activists, who criticized the audience for not attending BLM demonstrations. In Toronto, Black Lives Toronto protested the city’s Pride parade because of its “anti-blackness”; one of the group’s demands was that the parade could no longer include police floats.

No wonder that over 90 percent of Americans think that lack of civility is a national problem, and nearly two-thirds believe it is at a crisis level—all data that comes from a Civility in America survey taken before Donald Trump became president.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that so much of today’s narrow-mindedness is coming from those who practice tolerance only when they’re tolerating points of view that align with their own? Noam Chomsky, the academic patron saint of the political left, once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Would that Asa Khalif had taken heed of Chomsky.

But look, I’m an old white dude, so, mulling over my reaction to the bullying display put on by Khalif and Gardner at City Hall, I did what I often try to do: I checked my white male privilege, testing what I was feeling with some African Americans whose thinking on civic and racial matters tend to dive deep. The most revealing, and heartening, conversation I had was with Erica Atwood, formerly the city’s Director of the Office of Black Male Engagement under Michael Nutter, and currently the interim Executive Director of the Police Advisory Commission.

“What Asa does is problematic,” Erica Atwood told me. “There’s no strategy, just tactics. And it’s bullying. He came to one of our Police Advisory meetings with a bullhorn. We had families of murder victims there and he disrespects them and the process.”

Atwood knows more about the state of the investigation into the shooting of David Jones than she can divulge, but her reaction to the Black Lives shenanigans at City Hall struck me as clear-headed. “What Asa does is problematic,” she told me. “There’s no strategy, just tactics. And it’s bullying. He came to one of our Police Advisory meetings with a bullhorn. We had families of murder victims there and he disrespects them and the process.”

Atwood says that the display at City Hall this week—and any future spectacles—actually do more harm than good. “I can’t go into details, but stuff was moving in a good direction,” she says. “The Attorney General is taking over the case and there are internal reviews being conducted. This is not helpful if you’re interested in justice.”

Atwood points out that the one eyewitness to the shooting, at the behest of Khalif and ally Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris, spoke to the press and may have contradicted what he’d told the police. “Any good defense lawyer will make that eyewitness’s testimony inadmissable,” she says.

Atwood maintains that Black Lives Matter national doesn’t recognize Khalif’s Black Lives Pennsylvania but that “no one wants to call Asa out on that for fear of being seen as opposed to the movement.” 

Frankly, I’m not sure about what qualifies as an official Black Lives chapter, nor do I think it matters in the end. What matters is this: Are you helping or hurting? Are you working toward a solution, or are you just sowing division, ironically in response to those who seek to divide? I’m all for bomb-throwing—Abbie Hoffman and Fred Hampton were early heroes—but there’s smart and dumb bomb-throwing. Hampton, for example, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party before being murdered by Chicago police in 1969, brokered a historic nonaggression pact between Chicago street gangs.

All that said, bullies only flourish when no one stands up to them. Mayor Kenney and Council President Clarke allowed Khalif and Gardner to take over their press conference and slinked away.

Khalif and Gardner appear more show horse than thoroughbred, however. Remember the controversy over the Frank Rizzo statue? There was Khalif, placing a hood on the statue and upbraiding an African-American police officer: “Where the hell were you at when he was terrorizing your community?…You’re disrespecting your community. You disrespect yourself. Tear this motherfucker down!”

But wait. You need to see it to feel it: click the link courtesy of Billy Penn.

Now you tell me: Shouldn’t we be celebrating young African-Americans who seek to serve their community and all of us? Is this what passes for civil civic discourse in the American birthplace of Democracy?

In last month’s Philly Mag, there was a deferential interview with Khalif, under the headline “The Face Of A Movement.” In it, Khalif talks about his spirituality and says: “Racism is a spirit of hate and ignorance. It’ll consume you. When you go home and you’re drained, you don’t want to become like your oppressor. You don’t want to start hating like them. If you wake up in the morning and before you eat your Cheerios you’re saying “Fuck the police,” there’s a problem. You have to say, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t be this damn angry over some Cheerios.’”

In that and other interviews, Khalif has talked movingly about his white father and grandmother, an indication that, in his personal life, he sees nuance and complexity. But in his public persona, he seems a Trump-like cartoon character, shutting off debate and halting progress by playing the angry black man. There is a lot to be angry about; but Jesse Jackson used to say, “There are tree shakers and there are jelly makers”—and it’s the jelly makers who get stuff done and make our city better.

All that said, bullies only flourish when no one stands up to them. Mayor Kenney and Council President Clarke allowed Khalif and Gardner to take over their press conference and slinked away. Clarke issued a mealy-mouthed statement afterward and Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s spokeswoman, said that the protesters had interrupted a number of the mayor’s events and that he supported their First Amendment right to do so.

Khalif has talked movingly about his white father and grandmother, an indication that, in his personal life, he sees nuance and complexity. But in his public persona, he seems a Trump-like cartoon character, shutting off debate and halting progress by playing the angry black man. There is a lot to be angry about; but Jesse Jackson used to say, “There are tree shakers and there are jelly makers”—and it’s the jelly makers who get stuff done and make our city better.

Seriously? Look at those videos. Here at The Citizen, we’re all about the First Amendment, but let’s keep this real: This isn’t a First Amendment issue in the same way that shouting fire in a crowded theatre isn’t free speech. We should all be opposed to childish primal screams in our public life, whether they be from Black Lives Matter activists or the President of the United States.

What could Kenney have done when Khalif and Garner stormed his press conference? I reached out to Leslie Mayer, President and CEO of the Mayer Leadership Group; she’s one of the nation’s foremost executive leadership coaches.

“Were the Mayor my client, I would have advised him that situations like this provide a key opportunity to reinforce his leadership brand,” she told me in an email. “Given that he was not prepared to stop it, he could have stood up and made the following statement: ‘I will allow for this interruption to take precedence because it is a matter of urgency. Nothing is more important than safeguarding the lives of our citizens.  We will get to the bottom of  this matter.’ If he wanted to try to ensure that Black Lives Matter did not totally shut down the press conference, he might have added, ‘We have x amount of time today.  Black Lives Matter, please restrict your comments to x amount of time, after which we will return to the zero waste and litter action plan discussion.’ Of course, this is not a guarantee that they would have restricted their comments, but it is an assertion of leadership and respect.”

Asserting leadership—what a novel concept. It seems we have a dearth of it at so many levels…is it any wonder that we have a whole lotta shouting going on…and precious little wisdom?

 

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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