Here we go again, falling for the ol’ political okey-doke. That’s the first thing I thought when I heard that, in the dead of night, Mayor Kenney had disappeared the Frank Rizzo statue.
You know the term okey-doke, right? Its roots can be found in African-American parlance, as Barack Obama and Spike Lee, among others, have schooled us. “They’re trying to bamboozle you,” Obama told a predominantly black South Carolina crowd in 2008. “It’s the same old okey-doke. You know about the okey-doke, right?…They try to bamboozle you. Hoodwink you.”
He was talking about the typical tricks of the political trade, the shell game practiced pols play with your attention span, enticing you to look one way in order to strategically divert your gaze.
How was Kenney’s midnight raid on Rizzo the okey-doke? Could it have been a coincidence that it occurred just hours after his police force tear-gassed peaceful protestors? Or that it took place at a time when his revamped budget proposal zeroes out funding for his own government’s Office of Workforce Development—the very office charged with helping disproportionately black citizens escape poverty? Or that he decimates the Commerce Department’s budget by 85 percent, obliterating the funding of economic development programs?
This is not an argument for keeping the Frank Rizzo statue. It is, instead, a warning to not repeat the social change mistakes of the past. Remember the civil rights-era admonition to keep our eyes on the prize?
“The presence on a daily basis of that Rizzo statue represented an intractable racist system to the oppressed,” says filmmaker Gary Cohen. “I believe that the progressive goals you talk about are more attainable today now that Rizzo is gone. That empty space in front of the Municipal Services Building is change.”
Today, that focus should be on the real needs of real people whose lives in this perilous moment have descended into economic chaos and hopelessness.
According to MoneyGeek’s data science and analytics team, Philadelphia has lost 440,000 jobs since the dawn of the pandemic; those who worked in leisure and hospitality, which includes many African Americans, have been hit the hardest: down 57 percent.
We already had 400,000 of our fellow citizens subsisting below the poverty line—$21,000 a year for a family of three. Our poverty rate of 25 percent was already the worst in the nation before Covid-19. Where are we at now? 35 percent? 40?
Celebrate all you want about the removal of a statue, but it runs the risk of letting the energy of this moment dissipate into satisfaction with a merely symbolic victory. I’m all for Rizzo and his Mussolini-like salute exiting the scene, but let’s stipulate that it helps precisely zero black folk today, and that progressives have a tendency to unwittingly be bought off by grand one-off gestures, while the harder work of reforming systems gets forgotten after the protests end.
Then again, maybe it ought not to be seen as an either/or proposition. “Symbols matter,” says Gary Cohen, the filmmaker behind the forthcoming groundbreaking film about MOVE I wrote about last month. “I’m a storyteller. I make sense of the world using symbols. The presence on a daily basis of that Rizzo statue represented an intractable racist system to the oppressed. I believe that the progressive goals you talk about are more attainable today now that Rizzo is gone. That empty space in front of the Municipal Services Building is change.”
It’s a strong point, passionately made. Symbols do matter in storytelling. The problem is that, when it comes to racial justice and minority economic empowerment, especially here in Philly, our story too often feels like Groundhog Day. In times of intractable political gridlock, when there’s a crack of light opening for effecting real change, you risk wasting an opportunity by basking in pyrrhic victories.
“The one civil-rights cause I was most involved in was the push to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday,” former Wharton professor Ken Shropshire, who now runs Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute, once told me. “I don’t regret it. But, now, decades later, I wonder, after all those marches, that was it? We got a holiday. But what effect did we have?”
I’m all for Rizzo and his Mussolini-like salute exiting the scene, but let’s stipulate that it helps precisely zero black folk today, and that progressives have a tendency to unwittingly be bought off by grand one-off gestures, while the harder work of reforming systems gets forgotten after the protests end.
That, also, is a good point. Regarding King, yes, we got a substantive day of service, but we also got a mainstream whitewashing of King’s real legacy—in his last year, he was vastly unpopular, vilified for calling America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” for its actions in Vietnam, while arguing for redistributing wealth and organizing poor black and white sanitation workers to protest inequality.
Progressives meant well when mobilizing to honor him, but we ended up settling for a holiday—a symbol—complete with trite remembrances of a speech he made five years before his assassination.
Which brings us back to all the energy spent protesting the Rizzo statue the last few years. Couldn’t it have been channeled into advancing the cause of social justice for even one real person?
That was the focus of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti this week, when he reallocated $250 million from his city’s budget—including $150 million from the police budget—in direct aid to communities of color. Contrast that to Mayor Kenney’s revised budget, which adds $23 million in spending to the police, while slashing funding for police oversight, anti-violence, workforce development and economic development programs.
Let’s play Let’s Make a Deal. I’d gladly accept your display of the Frank Rizzo statue, (maybe with a plaque, putting ol’ Frank in his proper historical context), if you tell me, in this time of grave emergency that, over the next few years, we’re going to divert the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by Mayor Kenney’s much-cherished soda tax in order to fund a guaranteed income payment to those among us who, without intervention, will spiral into the depths of poverty and despair.
Or, better yet, that the same revenue will be turned over to the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, a consortium of bold-face-name business leaders making forgivable loans to mostly minority-owned businesses, helping to keep them afloat.
That would make for a groundbreaking public/private partnership, in a city whose population is roughly half black but where only 2.5 percent of businesses are owned by African Americans. (Six percent if you include sole proprietors.)
Addressing that disparity ought to be the issue of our time, and the focus of our energies. If we don’t get distracted, if we focus on actual systemic change, new ideas and strategies of empowerment, we will finally be saying so long to the ol’ okey-doke.Photo courtesy NBC10 Philadelphia