An open letter to Mayor Nutter: You. Are. Screwing. This. Up.
The city's plans for the papal visit aren't just questionable from a security standpoint, but it's been a PR disaster. Mayor Nutter, you need to fix this before it's too late.
Dear Mayor Nutter,
I'm not an expert on security, or event planning, or planning secure events. I'm just one of a couple million people who works or goes to school or lives in the city of Philadelphia. And I'm one of a majority of those folks who was excited to hear that Pope Francis -- not just the spiritual leader of one of the world's great religions but a moral leader on the most important issues of the 21st Century, including inequality and climate change -- would bless the city with his presence in the last weekend of September.
You're not a security expert, either, nor are you supposed to be. You're a leader. When it comes to the city's role in this papal visit, your job is to 1) coordinate security, people movement, etc., with actual experts and all the relevant agencies and 2) (and this is really the important one) communicate with the public, with the average schlub like me. That's not just so we know how to see the Pope, if so inclined, or at least how to move around the city that weekend. It's also so that we understand not only what is happening but why -- so that we can shrug off any hassles and continue to feel as good about the arrival of Pope Francis as we did the day his trip was announced.
So far, the actual plan (i.e., 1) is a head scratcher. There's some logic to closing train stations -- certainly folks had long and unpleasant platform waits at the 2008 Phillies parade, the last comparable event -- although most of the train riders I know are still thoroughly confused how this Pope plan actually will work. But closing the city's main thoroughfares and so sharply curtailing traffic, including a walking mini-marathon across on the Ben Franklin Bridge, is a baffler, and so is the cascading shutdowns of area schools and colleges, a series of dominoes in a papal panic frenzy. (I'm sure Pope Francis would be delighted at all the educating that's not happening in his name...actually, not.)
On Sunday, the Inquirer talked to a bunch of top security experts. Not one of them was enthusiastic about what the city is doing. They agree the plan is "just too much" -- and not in the 1960s hep cat way. One called it "a disproportional reaction." Another stressed that ,"You have to do security in a way that doesn't ruin the primary purpose of the event." That's good to hear -- because I was starting to think that I was going crazy hearing about some of the intentional inconveniences, or else maybe the world has gone crazy.
When you held a press conference last week to inform the public and perhaps allay our concerns, the next day's Daily News showed a screaming women, head in hands, over the large words "GOD HELP US." That's allaying the public's concerns? I mean, even people in the suburbs are being told to stock up on food like it's a blizzard. Maybe they think Francis is not the Pope but the sixth named tropical storm of the season, accompanied by 80 mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge. I guess you can never have enough milk and white bread when the pontiff comes to town. People are sleeping in cots in their offices, here at the newspaper and in many hospitals and other actually essential (i.e., not newspapers) operations.
Then there's all the post 9/11, over-the-top, yes-the-terrorists-actually-have-won security stuff that's a part of the plan. I'm sure all the talk about America becoming a police state will be quelled by rapid instant towing of any car that's parked illegally (which wasn't announced at the press conference but uncovered by digging journalists), or the possibility that folks will undergo major searches before they cross the Ben Franklin Bridge carrying a heavy wooden cross (OK, I made up that last part about the cross...but you have to admit it sounded believable for a second, given everything else).
Here's the thing, Mayor Nutter. I know that you and your increasingly testy aides really don't want to hear this, especially after the way you freaked out over questions about The Pope Fence (even though The Pope Fence is real, my friends). But here goes.
You. Are. Screwing. This. Up.
The good news (and did I mention that I'm not a security expert) is that there's still plenty of time to turn this thing around. The important first step is to listen to the critics, broaden your circle of experts (maybe the ones in this morning's paper?), and see what can be altered. Don't always always err on the side of caution! Err on the side of smart...and sane.
Second, whether you update the plan or not, you and your staff clearly need to do a much better job of communicating with the citizens. Share the evidence that a world of closed roads, automobile "no-go zones" and fences (OK, forget the fence) is better than the alternatives. Then, go everywhere -- on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and do a Redditt AMA or wherever the public is, and make sure you -- or your staff -- answer every one of the many unanswered questions.
Here's a few of my own:
-- You and other officials are basing many of the plans on estimates that 1 million or 1.5 million or maybe 2 million people may come to town for this -- but what is that based on? Did you know that in 1999 that St. Louis expected 1 million people to come see Pope John Paul II (just as popular as Francis, maybe more so) but only 200,000 showed up -- apparently because of weeks of dire warnings and officials, including the Secret Service, closing off too much of that city? Just like what is happening here. (Please read this story again and again.)
And America is much more couch-potato-y today than it was 16 years ago. Today, some NFL teams have to add all kinds of high-tech, watch-other-games gimmickry just to get fans -- who've already paid exorbitant ticket prices -- just to show up at the stadiums and not sink into their sofas at home. Why would Philadelphians watch the pope on 16 different close-up camera angles at home, when they could stand a half-mile away, fighting off a sweaty mob that just walked over a giant bridge on the Parkway? Why wouldn't they?
-- As you surely know, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo all but ruined the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia with his constant, wildly unwarranted warnings of domestic terrorism; just three years later Philadelphia got it right in a big way with the visit here from Pope John Paul II. So why do you seem determined to summon the Dark Spirit of '76 on this?
-- Philadelphia isn't the only city that's hosting Pope Francis on this trip -- he's also going to D.C. and New York. Maybe I'm missing something, but I haven't heard of massive road closings or mass transit disruptions (or milk buying or cots, for that matter) in those two cities. I understand our circumstances are different, both in the types of mostly smaller events that Francis is holding in the other cities and with the presence here of the large World Conference of Families -- but still. Are we coordinating and maybe modeling some of our planning on what these other cities are doing? Because that would be a good idea.
You see, that's actually what hurts the most about this whole thing. In the 36 years since the last papal visit, Philadelphia has made so much progress toward showing the rest of the world what you and almost all of your constituents believe deep at heart -- that we are a world-class city. So what is this all about? Why do New York and Washington get to hold up their end of the world-class-city bargain, while Philadelphia is playing this like Peoria?* Philadelphians are much, much more forgiving than we get credit for. But making this city look small, Mayor Nutter, is the worst cardinal sin there is.
* My family's all from Peoria so I can make fun of them.