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Philadelphia’s progressive priorities imperil the city’s future | Opinion

In response to civil unrest, Mayor Jim Kenney and district attorney Larry Krasner have only intensified their leftist agenda.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney gestures toward the site of the former location of Rizzo statue. He held a press conference regarding the removal of Rizzo statue.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney gestures toward the site of the former location of Rizzo statue. He held a press conference regarding the removal of Rizzo statue.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, looting devastated Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, from tony Rittenhouse Square to West Philadelphia’s struggling 52nd Street corridor. In response, Mayor Jim Kenney and district attorney Larry Krasner have only intensified their leftist agenda. Their alliance imperils the city, where a decade-long renaissance now seems like a distant memory.

When the looting ended, for example, Kenney immediately removed the statue of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s influential 1970s-era mayor, from its place in front of Center City’s Municipal Services Building. The statue had been a source of contention for years. As detractors correctly note, Rizzo, when running for a failed third term, urged supporters to “vote white.” As police chief in 1970, Rizzo rounded up Black Panthers, ordering them to strip naked and stand against a wall. Throughout that period, Philadelphia’s police were at Rizzo’s beck and call. Police canvassed city streets, picking up anyone who aroused suspicion. One time, during an innocent stroll after midnight, I was the victim of a pick-up myself when the police mistakenly identified me as a suspect.

Years later, when I interviewed Rizzo, who died in 1991, I talked about the indignity of that police encounter — and he apologized. I was taken aback when Rizzo extended a lunch invitation, an offer I never followed up on, though our amiable conversation changed my perspective of this controversial, complex figure. Of course, police brutality did exist in the city and, to some extent, Rizzo deserved blame for it.

Since its installation in 1998, the Rizzo statue has been routinely spray-painted with expletives and anarchy-laced political slogans. Though the statue divided residents, demands for its removal were typically dismissed. Further civil dialogue, however, ended when Kenney ordered the removal of the statue in the dead of night, after leftists splashed it in red paint and attempted to torch it. The city has moved the statue to a storage facility until it can determine its fate — a radical departure from last year, when the mayor’s office announced plans to move the monument to Rizzo’s native South Philadelphia, an historically Italian enclave.

South Philadelphia no longer registers as a safe space for public monuments. Shortly after the Rizzo statue’s removal, leftists across the U.S. began beheading and removing Christopher Columbus statues, which, during the 20th century, were erected in communities to celebrate Italians’ heritage and immigrant experience. In South Philadelphia, rumors spread that Kenney, to placate leftists, wanted to remove Columbus from the neighborhood’s Marconi Plaza. In response, residents — many living in multigenerational brick rowhomes built by Italian ancestors — formed an armed militia to guard the monument.

Kenney, a South Philadelphia native and a product of its political machine, jumped into the fray. Noting “groups of armed individuals ‘protecting’ the Columbus statue,” Kenney tweeted: “All vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city.” District Attorney Krasner added: “Prosecutors and police will uphold the law in Philly, consistent with their oaths, against criminal bullies. So save your bats for a ball game. And save your hatchets for chopping wood. We remain the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

This so-called affection, however, was nowhere to be found during days of looting, worsened by what the Philadelphia Inquirer called the police department’s “critical mistakes.” In fact, last week, despite the need for police as Philadelphia’s crime rate spiked, the City Council voted to cut the department’s 2021 funding by $14 million. And while the local press vilified the Columbus statue’s protectors, it mostly withheld criticism of vandalism elsewhere — including the defacing of a statue of Matthias Baldwin, founder of the city’s famed Baldwin Locomotive Works and an abolitionist who founded a school for black children. The Baldwin statue’s defacers — historically illiterate — only saw a white man on a pedestal.

South Philadelphia’s Columbus statue is now concealed behind a plywood box pending the art commission’s decision on its future. The city, which announced on Wednesday that they intend to remove it, seems more focused on the statue than on civilian concerns about crime. Krasner — who, before becoming DA in 2018, served as a pro bono attorney for Black Lives Matter — remains determined to enforce progressive policies. His decriminalization agenda has empowered radical-left anarchists who have committed property crimes throughout the city.

The Krasner imprint is being felt all over Philadelphia. As gun violence rises, his office appears more interested in setting criminals free than prosecuting them. His office chose not to prosecute nearly half of those arrested during Philadelphia’s looting, choosing instead to issue police citations that don’t result in formal charges. Krasner’s performance has drawn the ire of Josh Shapiro, the state’s Democratic attorney general and widely considered a future gubernatorial candidate.

As disorder continues in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, Mayor Kenney and DA Krasner remain preoccupied with radical concerns like removing public monuments and disempowering law enforcement. Their governing revolution imperils Philadelphia’s future and threatens to close the book on an urban renaissance that took decades to achieve.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist. A version of this piece first appeared in City Journal.