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Could Philly's progressive Mayor Kenney face political backlash from Starbucks arrests?

"Having your heart in the right place … does very little in the neighborhoods where people are affected," Councilwoman Cindy Bass said of Kenney.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass said Mayor Kenney should end stop-and-frisk in the wake of the Starbucks arrests. “The mayor, in one fell swoop, could fix this. So I say: Mayor, fix it.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass said Mayor Kenney should end stop-and-frisk in the wake of the Starbucks arrests. “The mayor, in one fell swoop, could fix this. So I say: Mayor, fix it.”Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN AND TIM TAI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERS

When video of two black men being arrested while waiting for a friend at Starbucks in Center City spread like wildfire across the internet during the weekend, Mayor  Kenney said he was "heartbroken."

In a carefully worded statement, he quickly announced that the Police Department would review its policies and that the city's Human Relations Commission would examine the company's procedures.

In the eyes of City Councilwoman Cindy Bass — a member of the powerful group of African American politicians whose support was critical to Kenney's victory in the 2015 mayoral election — that isn't enough.

"Having your heart in the right place, and sending out sentiments of such, does very little in the neighborhoods where people are affected," she said of Kenney.

Political observers said the incident at the chain's 18th and Spruce Streets store could lead to political fallout for the mayor. It could endanger Kenney's progressive brand and potentially fragment his coalition of diverse supporters, many of whom staunchly disagree with one another, such as liberal activists and the Fraternal Order of Police.

In Bass' view, the mayor ought to make major changes to the Police Department after the Starbucks arrests — namely, end the controversial crime-fighting strategy known as "stop-and-frisk."

"I can't understand why it's not already done," she said. "The mayor, in one fell swoop, could fix this. So I say: Mayor, fix it."

The arrests have led to nationwide condemnation of not only Starbucks but also the city's police. Some progressives and African Americans, who were key parts of Kenney's voting bloc, have also criticized the mayor's response as not going far enough to hold police accountable.

In some ways, Kenney's response to the arrests exemplifies the way he has tried to walk a careful line to keep the disparate parts of his coalition happy. Kenney, who is white, has expressed outrage and shown empathy over the incident at the coffee chain. He said it "appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018."

But he has largely placed the blame on the company, not police. Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who is black, has also stood behind his officers, arguing that they "did absolutely nothing wrong."

Asked if the police should have arrested the two men in the first place, Kenney has demurred.

"It's a very complicated set of circumstances," he said. "A library is a public space. A rec center is a public space. Your own home's kitchen is not a public space. But a private business that opens itself up to the public is kind of like a quasi-public space."

Many of Kenney's black political allies have struck a notably different tone. Bass said the men "absolutely" should not have been arrested. Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who are African American, made similar comments.

"Let me be clear," Clarke wrote on Facebook. "These men should NOT have been arrested."

Some politicians believe Kenney should have joined them in condemning the police officers' decision to take the two men into custody for several hours before ultimately releasing them without charges. One black elected official, who asked not to be named, said they were "disappointed" by the mayor's response to the Starbucks incident, but "not surprised" due to his ties to the police union.

State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, who ran against Kenney in the 2015 Democratic primary, said he "would have handled it differently."

The mayor "doesn't run Starbucks. But he's responsible for the Police Department," Williams said. "People should hear from those of us in a position of power and authority that this was not handled properly."

State Rep. Jordan Harris, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said, "What we should not do is focus on Starbucks alone — this is a policing issue as well."

For his part, city police union president John McNesby said the officers "did a great job" and called stop-and-frisk "a big myth": "In the city of Philadelphia, our officers are professional and know they have to have probable cause to stop somebody with a weapon."

Kenney's response has also displeased some prominent activists. Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that he was first "very satisfied with his initial statements on what happened at Starbucks." But, he said, "I've ultimately been a bit dismayed."

"I don't think it was just a Starbucks issue. Certainly the Starbucks employee who called the police was wrong. But I also think the police who handled it were wrong."

One of Kenney's most powerful African American allies, Philadelphia NAACP leader Rodney Muhammad, defended him. Muhammad has worked as a consultant for Kenney's political action committee.

"I've sat with Jim Kenney on more than one occasion, and I think that at his core, he's a decent human being. And I think at his core he wants to do good."

However, Muhammad said it was a "disappointment" that Kenney has resisted calls to discipline the police officers at the scene, adding, "I don't know the set of facts he's working with."

Kenney said the officers were "called to assist a store manager with an issue."

Larry Ceisler, a longtime political observer working in public relations, said the Starbucks arrests could give power to protesters who have renewed calls for Kenney to keep his campaign promise to end stop-and-frisk.

"Is stop-and-frisk something that gets a serious hearing and another look? Probably," said Ceisler, who has worked for the beverage industry against Kenney's soda tax.

The ACLU said this week that the police service area where the Starbucks store is located has "the highest racial disparities in pedestrian stops in the entire city." A 2017 report from the organization found that African Americans make up only 3 percent of the area's population, but 67 percent of police stops were of African Americans.

Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Kenney, said, "The mayor has been committed to reducing the number of pedestrian stops and frisks made without reasonable suspicion." He said the number of stops in the city fell by more than 50 percent between 2015 and 2017.

"I will credit them for a meaningful reduction," said the ACLU's Shuford. "But [stop-and-frisk] continues to disproportionately impact certain Philadelphians. For that reason, the mayor needs to revisit his stance."

Ceisler said elected officials' and activists' disagreements with Kenney over these issues "could play out" in a number of other ways that could affect his legislative agenda.

"Is it going to play out in the budget hearings?" he asked. "Is it going to play out in some of the things the mayor is asking for — property-tax increases and other tax increases?"

"The honeymoon" between Kenney and his supporters "is not over yet," Ceisler said. "But I think this is one of those issues — one of those core, gut, ugly issues — that tests that."

At the same time, Ceisler added, Kenney's close relationship with Council members and other politicians "offers the chance to have a more candid dialogue about the incident as well as related issues to hopefully achieve desirable policy outcomes."

Notably, Kenney just gave some of the liberal activists upset in the aftermath of the Starbucks arrests something to celebrate: He announced Wednesday morning that he is closing the House of Correction, the city's oldest, most decrepit prison, a longtime progressive goal.