Addressing the Philly uprising requires political courage. The mayor doesn’t have it.

Activists at a rally in Center City hold up a sign demanding the mayor defund the PPD

Activists at a rally in Center City hold up a sign demanding the mayor defund the Philadelphia Police Department. (Courtesy of Philly We Rise Coalition)

During an uprising for racial justice, everyday politics are meaningless. What we need at this moment from our officials is political courage.

Black and brown people in Philadelphia and across the country have been told repeatedly that we can neither challenge the cops nor their union, the Fraternal Order of Police. In short: it’s been implied that the police are untouchable, above the law.

But times have changed.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has pushed thousands of people into the streets of Philadelphia, streets where generations of Black men have been lost to a carceral system and to systemic gun violence, a crisis that the Philadelphia Police Department — despite its ever-expanding budget — has utterly failed to control.

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The facts are clear, in my opinion: more cops don’t equal more safety. But more cops on the streets have meant, in some communities, more racial profiling and brutality.

Back to politics: Mayor Jim Kenney and his managing director, Brian Abernathy, haven’t demonstrated the political courage that this moment demands. Meanwhile, elected officials from Los Angeles to New York City are cutting millions from their bloated police budgets. And even politicians in Minneapolis are caving to the demands to dismantle their current policing infrastructure, which includes cutting ties with their police unions.

But the mayor and his second-in-command are still pushing for inadequate and incremental reforms. Abernathy has been quoted saying he underestimated the anger, rage and frustration of the citizens he’s been hired to serve. That is certainly true, because the managing director is woefully out of touch.

Rather than incremental reforms, Philadelphia needs a moral vision that reflects the city’s values. Instead, at a time of devastating austerity, the Kenney administration made a deal with the Fraternal Order of Police to protect their jobs — police officers got a 2.5% raise and $750 bonuses, a perk that will cost taxpayers nearly $5 million — while they prepared to lay-off library workers and sanitation drivers. That is not visionary. That is business as usual.

The mayor’s reversal of the proposed $19 million increase to the PPD’s budget only came after thousands of individuals rallied; after police officers tear-gassed peaceful protesters; after tons of taxpayers emailed; and after the City Council called the Administration’s bluff, asserting that they wouldn’t pass a budget without defunding the police.

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This is not politics as usual. And if the mayor and his subordinates want to be on the right side of history, they must defund the police. And we will stay in the streets until it happens.

My organization, the Amistad Law Project, is joining the chorus of those who demand that the mayor cut $120 million from the police budget, which is the staggering amount of money the Kenney administration has increased the police’s budget by over the last five years. By retiring the aging officers, eliminating positions and firing habitually problematic cops, some cuts can begin immediately.

The money saved should be reinvested into the crucial city services you’ve cut: public libraries and parks, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, and violence prevention programs, among many others.

Another great start would be to fully fund the Housing Trust Fund, which can help stave off an impending eviction crisis which, in turn, will limit the interactions between police and the public.

Various movement leaders have sat with the mayor behind closed doors and seen his anger at the system of privilege for police. But many of these same leaders have seen him throw up his hands in frustration and uphold the status quo.

Kenney and his administration won’t get a political chance like this again. With less than two weeks left to pass a city budget, the mayor has the opportunity to embody the type of man he claims to be. He can be in touch with the people he governs. Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are currently crying out with one voice to defund the police by $120 million.

The mayor must listen to these cries and act appropriately.

Kris Henderson is the executive director of Amistad Law Project.

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