When Bryan Mercer got the text around dinnertime Wednesday evening, he was confused — a feeling that quickly dissolved into outrage.
“The text reads, ‘Philadelphia courts are soft on illegal immigrants and hard on African Americans. Let’s push back on City Hall,’ ” said Mercer, of Southwest Philadelphia. The message invites recipients to click through to support a discrimination lawsuit against the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has pledged to consider immigration consequences when prosecuting any undocumented people facing nonviolent charges.
Mercer, who heads the Media Mobilizing Project and worked on the Coalition for a Just District Attorney, which supported Krasner’s reform campaign in 2017, was even more surprised when he posted on Facebook and learned more than a dozen friends got the same message. So did dozens of Facebook users who posted in a West Philadelphia neighborhood group, West Willy.
The link led to a page, USACriminalJusticeReform.org.
“It’s a page that’s all about dividing the black and brown communities in Philadelphia,” he said — the opposite of what the Coalition for a Just DA was seeking to accomplish. “To this day, black and brown communities are working together to end mass incarceration. Seeing this, it was clear that this was meant to divide our communities and then throw people under the bus.”
A “donate” button on the site invites users to give to the Black Sphere LLC, which is also listed as the domain registrant. The Black Sphere is promoted as the website of Kevin Jackson, an African American conservative commentator who, according to reports, was terminated as a Fox News contributor last year after calling the women who accused U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault “lying skanks.”
In an interview Friday morning, Jackson, the Missouri-based author of books including Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, confirmed he had sent text messages to about 100,000 Philadelphia residents to cultivate support for what he said would be a class action lawsuit against the city. He said he was not sure who the qualifying class members would be. “That’s all legal stuff the legal folks would do. I’ll give you the layman’s view from my standpoint. There are literally thousands of people in the city who, let’s say, got a DUI, and the city will let an illegal go for DUI. How many people want to be part of that lawsuit?”
Although Krasner specified that his initiative applied only to low-level, nonviolent offenses, Jackson said it’s his belief that undocumented individuals who have perpetrated “heinous” violent crimes are being released without charges. “They’re saying let’s violate the laws of citizens by putting citizens in harm’s way. We’re not talking about jaywalking here. We’re talking about crimes people go to prison for,” Jackson said.
The USA Criminal Justice Reform website describes a series of unsuccessful Right-to-Know requests for access to case files reviewed by Caleb Arnold, the attorney charged with leading the office’s efforts to avoid triggering deportation proceedings. “Clearly, Philadelphia favor sanctuary for ILLEGALS over the rights of the city’s mostly black citizens,” it reads, pledging to file legal action, though it is unclear from the site what form that action might take. No recent decisions from the state Office of Open Records appeared to match the requests filed, and the DA’s Office said it had not received any requests from Jackson or The Black Sphere. However, Jackson said he had obtained some data from the office that strengthened his case, though he declined to provide details. He said legal action was imminent, but would not provide a specific timeline.
On the other hand, the site itself could be the subject of legal action, according to Gigi Sohn, a consumer advocate and a senior staffer at the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration. Sohn said the texts were “completely illegal. You can’t send unsolicited text messages like that. You have to get the consumer to say they want them. You have to get their consent. I don’t think any of these were consented to.” Such a violation could be prosecuted by state or federal agencies, or could be cause for a civil suit.
Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “This website seeking personal information and cash donations is a shameful attempt to pit vulnerable people against one another. ... Not only will Jackson’s efforts to divide Philadelphians fail completely, this boneheaded attempt to rake in a few bucks could cost him dearly.”
Meanwhile, those who received the message are left wondering how their number was selected. Jackson declined to say how he obtained his text list or whether recipients had signed up for texts.
One West Philadelphia resident, Makenna Davis, 32, who is a social worker and registered Democrat, said it seemed like a poorly targeted and ill-conceived effort. “I texted back: ‘This is racist! Don’t ever text me again,’ ” she said.
Jennifer Wilmot, 34, who is based in Philadelphia but teaches diversity and inclusion in education at the University of Kansas, said she often receives texts from activist groups like Color of Change — but this one was obviously different.