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Intolerance, Philly-Style

When a rabid crowd of protesters shut down a public hearing last week on the economic impact of the soda tax, the real victim was Democracy itself

When a rabid crowd of protesters shut down a public hearing last week on the economic impact of the soda tax, the real victim was Democracy itself

It feels like, everyday, Democratic values and civility are breaking down all around us. And, sorry to say, fellow big city progressives, it ain’t all coming from Trump. We’re all shouting at one another and talking past each other, with progressives turning on progressives, likely playing right into the hands of Trumpian “divide and conquer” politics.

Examples abound: 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.”

The hearing into the economic impact of the soda tax was hijacked by pro-soda tax protesters chanting “This Is Our House,” implying that City Hall is only a public space for those with a certain point of view. They blared deafening noisemakers and trotted out little kids as props—some of whom had to cover their ears because of the noise.

Or how about the recent ugliness at Evergreen State College, when an angry mob of students turned on a white progressive professor for objecting to a change to an annual event called the Day of Absence, which, in past years, found non-white students leaving campus to attend anti-racism events. This year, student activists were asking white people to leave campus for the day as an act of alliance with people of color. When Professor Bret Weinstein objected, writing that “people shouldn’t be allowed to speak or not on the basis of their skin color,” all hell broke loose.

Check out this excerpt from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, with its disturbing video of students shouting down the professor, and an interview with the professor who says, “I’m a deeply progressive person and I’m troubled by what this implies about the state of the Left:”

The Evergreen State and Jewish lesbian march stories aren’t blips on the screen. They’re part of  a trend whereby those who preach tolerance exhibit it solely for speech they happen to agree with. And last week, the trend came here, to the American birthplace of Democracy.

“If junior is in pre-K, and his sister is playing at a beautiful new playground, but Dad works at a supermarket and is laid off, that’s a complicated piece of policy that deserves a conversation,” says Senator Tony Williams. He hoped to say that to the mayor. “I called him twice before the hearing, but he didn’t return either call,” he says.

Last Friday, in a bipartisan move, Democratic State Senator Tony Williams and Republican State Senator Scott Wagner were to hold a hearing in City Council of The Pennsylvania Senate Local Government Committee, which Wagner chairs, looking into the economic impact of Philadelphia’s beverage tax. The hearing never happened. Instead, it was hijacked by pro-soda tax protesters, chanting “This Is Our House,” implying that City Hall is only a public space for those with a certain point of view. They blared deafening noisemakers and trotted out little kids as props—some of whom had to cover their ears because of the noise.

After close to an hour, Wagner cancelled the hearing, which would have featured at least three pro-tax proponents, some hard-working, immigrant corner store owners seeking to share how the soda tax was adversely affecting their small-margin businesses, and Jeff Brown, the owner of inner-city ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores who has been outspoken about the unintended consequences of the regressive tax, but whose commitment to progressive causes should be beyond reproach.

Prior to the hearing, the pro-soda tax lobby set the stage for the protest. Councilwoman Helen Gym sent out an invitation for people to show up and “protect Pre-K”: “The soda industry and their Harrisburg allies are continuing their endless assault on Pre-K for Philly kids,” she wrote. “And they’re bringing their anti-Philly attacks straight to the heart of our city.” Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, posted on her Facebook page: “I know its [sic] almost summer but this is the exact time when a great deal of mischief can happen in Harrisburg. Senators Williams and Wagner are on the warpath to repeal the soda tax. Come to City Council chambers at 10 am tomorrow to let them know you disagree!” And the Mayor—though he submitted testimony—released a statement fanning the us versus them flames: “We respectfully ask the General Assembly to allow the City of Philadelphia the autonomy we need, and frankly deserve, to improve the lives of our residents.”

What’s really going on here? A lot that has gone unsaid, much of which goes right to the heart of just what it means to be a progressive. Talk about talking past one another: Kenney, Gym, et al saw themselves as the last line of defense against an assault on the pre-K and Rebuild programs; Williams and many of those testifying, however, say they are in favor of those programs, but want to find a better funding formula for them. After all, the soda tax (which, remember, had not been candidate Kenney’s plan for funding pre-K; that was zero-based budgeting, which mysteriously disappeared from his platform after his election) has not met the city’s own revenue projections, promises to be an unreliable ongoing source for the pre-K and Rebuild programs, and appears to have cost local jobs. Over six months, Brown says his sales are down 15 percent and he’s had to shed 220 people in man-hour cuts from last year. The Teamsters have said they’re down 155 workers, Coca-Cola cut 40 jobs , and Pepsi says it’s losing 100 workers—all, they say, due to the tax. The Kenney administration’s response has been to, Trump-like, demagogically scoff at these reports and blame “Big Soda” for harming our children.

“Look, there has been a year and a half of public discourse about this,” says George Matysik, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance. “Since 1983, my organization has been advocating for money for parks and recreation centers. We’ve got kids going into rec centers that are falling apart. We’re ready to put shovels in the ground and get to work.”

Senator Williams counters that, if there’s a chance that real people are hurting as a result of a regressive tax, shouldn’t we find a solution? “I’m in favor of pre-K and Rebuild,” he said when I caught up with him earlier this week. “But if junior is in pre-K, and his sister is playing at a beautiful new playground, but Dad works at a supermarket and is laid off, that’s a complicated piece of policy that deserves a conversation.”

Williams says that’s what the hearing was about, which he’d hoped to explain to the mayor beforehand. “I called him twice before the hearing, but he didn’t return either call,” he says. “We’re going to reschedule the hearing. And we’ll let him know about it, but I won’t call him, since he doesn’t return my calls.”

Instead of hearing Williams out, it seems the Kenney propaganda machine snapped into action to prevent just such a conversation from taking place.

I called George Matysik, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, to hear the opposing view. He was at the hearing and defends the protesters. “What you saw was a demonstration of Democracy,” he told me. “The people in that room were frustrated that their voices hadn’t been heard. It was not going to be a balanced agenda. Look, there has been a year and a half of public discourse about this. Since 1983, my organization has been advocating for money for parks and recreation centers. We’ve got kids going into rec centers that are falling apart. We’re ready to put shovels in the ground and get to work.”

Doesn’t it seem like there’s a lot of talk of tolerance lately, but precious little of it? Imagine if Philadelphia had a more introspective leader, someone willing to react to the Age of Trump not by attacking those with whom he disagrees but by acknowledging that it’s time to make Philadelphia empathetic again.

Matysik is a good guy, with a genuine commitment to upgrading our parks and rec centers. I try again with him: Yes, but given that the soda tax revenue is coming up short of projections and having these other bad effects on the economy, why not talk about other funding options? Shouldn’t the smart loyalty be to the programs and not to the way we fund them? In Chicago, after all, Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year funded new pre-K seats by floating Social Impact, or Pay for Success bonds, a public/private partnership whereby investors only see a return on their money when certain social impact goals are met. But Matysik—like Gym and Kenney—is in the bunker, and any open-minded acknowledgment that there might be a better way smacks of retreat. “There have been multiple opportunities for everyone to have their voices heard,” he said. “The other side has been heard in City Council, in a court case, and they put $12 million worth of advertising on the air.”

In other words, the battle lines are drawn. Progressives like Kenney, Gym and Matysik rightly lambaste Mitch McConnell for drawing up an odious health care bill behind closed doors—without a single public hearing—but then support rudely squelching one locally. “The irony is, unlike on the national scene, we’re all Democrats,” says Jeff Brown. “We agree on a lot—pre-K, Rebuild, that the excessive consumption of sugar is bad for you. But the soda tax wasn’t thought through. And, even though we’re all like-minded, we can’t listen to each other.”

Why such a fealty to this one particular tax, anyway? Could it be political? It bears remembering, after all, that, back when then-Mayor Michael Nutter tried to pass a beverage tax, then-Councilman Kenney was a strong voice in opposition, as were the Building Trades and John Dougherty. What changed? Well, in 2014, the Teamsters refused to sign on to the new, more customer-friendly labor work rules at the Convention Center that Dougherty laudably had a hand  in orchestrating. And then the same Teamsters backed Williams for mayor against Kenney. Dougherty and his longtime lieutenant, Councilman Bobby Henon, became avid supporters of the soda tax. Dougherty is now head of the Building Trades, which will benefit from the $500 million Rebuild windfall. Meantime, who does the soda tax hurt the most? You guessed it: The Teamsters. Could this be payback?

I know, I know. Like Inspector Renault in Casablanca, you’re shocked—shocked!—to find politics happening in Philly. But it’s not always smart politics. After the shoutdown last week, Gym told Channel 6, “I’d like to see a real partnership with Harrisburg that focuses in on full, fair funding for our schools.” Williams had a clever reply, after the protesters serenaded him with chants of “This Is Our House,” pointing out that moderate Republicans in the state house were now more likely to respond to the inevitable forthcoming city requests for more education funding by saying, “That’s your house.”

Make no mistake, last week, when citizens shouted down other citizens in City Hall, it ceased to be about run of the mill politics, because supposed leaders looked on and were complicit in trampling free and open discourse. Don’t you pine for a mayor who, upon seeing such an anti-Democratic display, stands up for every Philadelphians right to be heard—even if they disagree with him? Jane Slusser, Kenney’s Chief of Staff, was in the room when all uncivil hell broke out. Afterwards, Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt doubled down on the us versus them narrative: “I think if they went to any locality in Pennsylvania and staged a hearing to gin up support for defunding pre-K, community schools, parks, rec centers and libraries, they would get the same response they received today.” Flick on CNN and listen to Sean Spicer spinning about how Obamacare is in free fall failure…is it so different?

Doesn’t it seem like there’s a lot of talk of tolerance lately, but precious little of it? Imagine if Philadelphia had a more introspective leader, someone willing to react to the Age of Trump not by attacking those with whom he disagrees but by acknowledging that it’s time to make Philadelphia empathetic again. Jim Kenney could have done that last week by seeing to it that those who have been harmed by his tax policy had the opportunity to tell their stories.

Photo: Pixabay

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