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Scenes from a (soda tax) protest

Last week’s rally against the soda tax lacked many things—including a crowd

Orlando Marmol and his wife Kenia, who own a small grocery in Olney, made the trip because they were distressed by the prospect of losing sales due to the tax. “When the cigarette tax passed, we lost 40% of our cigarette sales overnight,” Kenia says. “This will be even worse.” Del Conor and his wife, Jacqueline, who own the soda company Dr. Physick, agreed. The profit margins on their locally made soda are already tight, and the higher prices will “kill our sales,” Del says.

These are a few of the people who showed up at the rally outside City Hall last week to protest the soda tax, on which City Council will vote tomorrow. I’ve spent the last two decades writing about workers’ rights and issues that pertain to income inequality. I went to the rally to find out: Is this a fight between moneyed interests or is there something grassroots afoot? What I saw was not impressive: To protest against the new tax, in what is already one of the highest taxed cities in the country, it would be generous to estimate that 300 people have shown up.

When it comes to organized protest, size matters. In fact, it’s about the only thing that does. It’s hard to imagine the Arab Spring would have gotten underway if a mere 300 people had massed in Tahrir Square in 2012. And at least half the people here this morning are Teamsters, organized protestors whose participation has the feel of membership obligation rather than connection to the issue. I ask one of the teamsters why he is here and he says something about the government coming for his guns if they are not stopped. Another says that City Government will tax the air we breathe if they are not stopped. The prospect of an unchecked, tyrannical city government seems like it has motivated them more than the actual specifics of the soda tax, and a lot of the conversation has a distinctly Tea Party vibe.

The air-we-breathe motif also appears a lot on signs that are being waved around. SODA TAX-NEXT AIR TAX, one protester has written. Some of the other signs are straightforward (NOT ANOTHER PENNY FOR KENNEY), some are clever (ALL THESE TAXES ARE SODA-PRESSING) and some appear to have been left over from other rallies (NO JUSTICE NO PEACE.) Someone has blown up an unflattering picture of Kenney giving the photographer the finger while getting drunk, and emblazoned several different quips on it. No matter. If Kenney had looked down from his office and seen how sparse the crowd was, he would probably have found the scene encouraging.

A parade of beverage trucks roll by and blow their air horns, making the first real noise of the morning as some speakers take the stage. Local businessman Gary Hines talks about pre-K, the intended use of the soda tax funding, and says, “There’s got to be other ways to fund this…Some of these bigger corporations don’t pay their fair share. I’m not naming names.” I wonder why not. Maybe leaving us hanging is red meat for the Tea Party conspiracy types. Danny Grace from Teamsters local 830 makes reference to a “broad coalition” of over “a thousand businesses and 17,000 people,” and I wonder where they all are. If a third of them had shown up this morning, the rally would have a totally different feel.

The lack of a female speaker underscores the organizational feel of the protest.  For a tax that has been labeled the “grocery tax,” in a city where women do a vast majority of the grocery shopping, this protest has been arranged to demonstrate how the new tax will affect businesses.

Other speakers, business owners and heads of various organizations, come up and tick off the list of damages that will be inflicted by the tax. All of them are men. The lack of a female speaker underscores the organizational feel of the protest. For a tax that has been labeled the “grocery tax,” in a city where women do a vast majority of the grocery shopping, this protest has been arranged to demonstrate how the new tax will affect businesses. The human aspect, the single mother who can barely afford to pay for her groceries today, or the cash strapped family man, is absent. Also missing is racial diversity. If this movement has a face, it is a white business owner angry about profits.

A protest like this is always a gamble. Charles de Gaulle famously said that the job of president was simple: To keep the people from rioting. The impact of protest is routinely underplayed by the corporate media, probably in the hopes that fewer people will actually do it. But everyone who has ever served in government knows full well the impact of looking out an office window and seeing an impressive crowd, furious about a proposed policy. And if they look out the window and see a small crowd that barely fills out a few hundred square feet of public space, they take that as a sign, too. It is a sign of implicit permission to continue along whatever path they have chosen, to double down on the policy that initiated the protest in the first place.

Sure enough, later in the day, at a preliminary vote, City Finance Director Rob Debow announced right before the vote that not only will the tax proposal go to a vote, but that much of the money it generates in the first year will not be used for pre-k and city parks. Instead it will go into the city’s general fund, a black hole of unspecified expenses. Why wouldn’t he? The Kenney administration cleverly used kids to sell the tax, but in the end they were mere props.

I’m not suggesting that a 1.5 cents/ounce tax on sugary drinks should draw a Tahrir Square-type demonstration, but a government is only as good as the citizens make it. If a beverage industry-sponsored poll said 58% of Philadelphians really oppose the soda tax, why did so few of them show up to say so? (A Citizen co-sponsored poll with BeHeardPhilly found 58.7 percent favored the tax.) The usual complaint, that there is no real opposition party in Philadelphia City Government, which makes the Democratic primary the real election and hands excessive power to the mayoral office, is only partly to blame. In an environment like that, civic engagement becomes even more necessary. But today the showing was too weak to make a difference.

The soda tax passed out of committee later that day. The vote tomorrow will likely make it law. Soon, Philadelphians may have to pay 1.5 cents extra for every ounce of soda they drink. Maybe the air we breathe really will be next. If we don’t speak up and participate in the process, anything is possible.

Photo credit: Iain Levison

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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