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Divide and Rule, Philly-Style

Whether it’s legislation targeting Korean delis or street drummers, are progressives playing into Trump’s hands?

Whether it’s legislation targeting Korean delis or street drummers, are progressives playing into Trump’s hands?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself: What’s the smart, strategic response to divisive leadership? We have a president, after all, with an innate sense of playing to grievance, of pitting group against group, constituency versus constituency. It’s a page right out of our history books, as when the Roman empire took Britain by adopting “Divide and Rule” strategies, pitting small tribes against one another in order to solidify power and capture new territories.

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In classic cases of divide and rule—be it the Romans taking Britain or the Brits taking India—the vanquished, by taking the bait and devolving into internecine squabbling, were unwitting accomplices in their own fate.

What’s this got to do with Philly? Well, rest easy: We’re not in danger of being colonized. But two recent news stories have got me thinking that we just might be playing into Trump’s own version of divide and rule politics. After all, the more local tribes fight with one another, the more fissures are likely to appear among those who would otherwise be part of a united opposition that puts forth a coherent vision for the future.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ legislation, which passed Council 14-3 a week ago, cracks down on largely Korean-owned Stop-and-Go stores, that, as Citizen columnist and WURD host Charles Ellison chronicled earlier this week, operate in the murky area between restaurant and liquor store and have long been scourges of predominantly low income, African-American neighborhoods.

The most controversial aspect of the proposed legislation seemed punitive and would have removed said stores’ bulletproof plexiglass windows: “We want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through Plexiglass only in certain neighborhoods,” said Bass, seeming to elevate such feelings over the safety concerns of business owners. After an outcry, the bill now kicks the proverbial can over to Licenses & Inspections, which will issue new regulations for the “use or removal of any physical barrier.”

There has long been tension between community members and Korean immigrant business owners in inner-city African-American neighborhoods, as the Los Angeles riots vividly illustrated some 25 years ago. Then, two already marginalized groups squared off against one another while the city literally burned. Thankfully, the tension here hasn’t reached LA-like levels, but one can’t help but wonder if part of Bass’ legislation plays on similarly tribal “whose neighborhood is this” resentments.

Ultimately, the answer is leadership that rejects the politics of grievance and that brings us together around the things we all share. That requires leaders who can widen the aperture of their lens, who see—and get us to see—beyond the political tit for tat.

The brouhaha over Bass’ legislation followed another case where groups were seeming to fight over just whose city this is. This one was more of a head-scratcher: Councilman Mark Squilla’s proposed legislation that would have outlawed public drumming.

You read that right. After an outcry, the bill was pulled, but the fact remains that, bowing to complaints about noise from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Center City restaurants, a bill was proposed calling “for a prohibition against the use of drums and cymbals and devices and objects used as drums and cymbals outdoors in certain areas of the City audible at a certain distance from the activity…”

If you’ve walked around Center City at night, you’ve seen the drummers in question, groups of young African-American men performing for donations on the street. Yes, the noise level is high. Yes, it can be distracting.

But here’s where we get to what it means to live in a city. There are a couple of ways to react to the sudden emergence of loud, drum-playing, marching African-American kids in your midst. One is to engage in a kind of trickle-down divisiveness, to see them as somehow Other, to give in to the instinct to keep them off “your” streets. The other is to embrace the serendipity of the moment, to see in it a type of advertisement for the promise of the city, a picture crying out for a caption that screams e pluribus unum.

That’s what one Philadelphian did not so long ago, providing me with an object lesson. Ajay Raju—the nattily-attired CEO of the Dilworth Paxson law firm, philanthropist, and co-founder of The Citizen—found himself on the street with just such a group of marching drummers last summer. He looked on not in fear or disgust, but with wonder. He approached the young men and asked for their story.

I know this because at his foundation’s Germination Project gala at the Union League in September, those young men were the featured entertainment, in the spot occupied by Opera Philadelphia a year prior. They stepped and drummed their way to a raucous standing ovation. Turns out, Raju had them to his house and to his law office, mentoring them, exposing them to bigger and more varied audiences.

That night, Raju told me why he stopped and struck up a conversation with these young men from North Philly. “I have a bias in favor of hustlers,” he said, noting that he didn’t know English when he relocated from India to Northeast Philly at the age of 14. “I saw a bunch of entrepreneurs who could have been home lamenting that they didn’t have jobs, but who were out hustling, making good money and bringing music into the world. How can you not support something that positive?”

At a time when headlines have blared about flash mobs and wilding youth, Raju instinctively recognized the drummers as representative of something socially constructive; far from public nuisance, the drummers’ hard work and resourcefulness really speaks to the miracle of common things. In these divided times, when the urge may be to point fingers toward others when you feel fingers pointing at you, maybe the answer is to double down over what we share.

There are a couple of ways to react to the sudden emergence of loud, drum-playing, marching African-American kids in your midst. One is to see them as somehow Other. The other is to see in it a type of advertisement for the promise of the city, a picture crying out for a caption that screams e pluribus unum.

That would mean, rather than already marginalized groups fighting over ever-dwindling slices of the economic pie, forging consensus; in the case of African-Americans and Korean store owners, that might mean banding together to demand answers as to why our murder rate is up 14 percent this year—that’s 305 chalk outlines, folks—or why only 40 percent of murders with African-American victims are solved. Taking away protective plexiglass doesn’t solve anything if it’s unsafe to walk our streets.

And, in the case of African-American drummers on those same city streets, maybe, rather than devolve into “this isn’t your city” tribalism, we should take a cue from Raju and see it as an opportunity to stress shared values like hard work and entrepreneurship.   

Look, it’s easy to divide. It’s only natural to be susceptible to scapegoating. Most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point where we admit fault, right? Divide and rule politics works, unless we consciously counter it. Ultimately, the answer is leadership that rejects the politics of grievance and that brings us together around the things we all share. That requires leaders who can widen the aperture of their lens, who see—and get us to see—beyond the political tit for tat. Here’s hoping our City Council and Mayor are up to the challenge.

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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