Rogue, maskless Mummers kick off 2021 with ‘protest’ through South Philly

Protesters march on South 11th Street wearing sweatshirts that say

Protesters march on South 11th Street wearing sweatshirts that say "South Philly Still Struts." (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the first time in decades, the new year has dawned in Philadelphia without a formal Mummers Parade to accompany it.

Mayor Jim Kenney canceled the parade in July out of concern about the pandemic. Rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths are now far higher in the city compared to the summer, and parade leaders cooperated with the city and urged people to stay home.

Still, hundreds of people joined Mummer’s March in South Philadelphia on Friday anyway for what they said was not a “parade,” but a protest.

Many attendees were seen without masks, and did not observe physical distancing recommendations. A number of police officers were also on scene, acting as an escort for Mummers.

Nearly 3,000 had said they would join the “Mummers/New Year’s Day Peaceful Protest Against Mayor Kenney” on Facebook, with another 8,500 expressing interest. The event was styled as such to give it the constitutional cover of the First Amendment, which protects the right to free speech and assembly.

Mummer Patrick McLaughlin said “there’s nothing ever going to stop it.”

Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade.
Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He and others have justified the mass Mummer gathering as being in the same vein as the large, mostly peaceful, Black Lives Matter protests that occupied city streets through much of the summer.

“People got away with worse stuff this year,” McLaughlin said, pointing to what he called “riots and nonsense.” “As long as everybody behaves it should be a good time.”

Mitchell, a Mummers supporter who declined to give his last name, called the march great for neighborhood morale.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said. “If other people can peaceful protest, everybody should be able to peaceful protest.”

Not everyone shared the marchers’ level of animus toward citywide COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Kathy Patrone said the annual parade is a tradition for her, but that she understands concerns about the spread of the virus. She said she felt safe enough to attend the event only in the back of the crowd with her mask on.

Patrone said she’s mostly stuck to social distancing rules, but considers joining the Mummers an indulgence worth it to her mental health.

Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade.
Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I don’t mind coming out and taking a small risk,” Patrone said. “I know it’s somewhat disrespectful to health care workers, that’s a big concern of mine … that’s why I’m trying to stay in the back.”

City of Philadelphia spokesperson Lauren Cox said that officials hoped the severity of the pandemic would convince people to stay home. But city policy is to avoid confrontations over violating COVID-19 emergency orders if possible.

Frank Murphy says he’s taken part in the parade for 50 years and, despite some of the political signs around him, called the march a celebration of the new year.

When asked if Murphy is afraid of getting sick amid the maskless gatherers, he said it was a good question.

“It’s January 1st,” he said. “That’s all I got to say.”

Maureen Fratantoni, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, and her son, son James Fratantoni, the big bad wolf-rat, show support for those protesting the cancellation of the Mummers Parade from their front stoop on 11th Street.
Maureen Fratantoni, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, and her son, son James Fratantoni, the big bad wolf-rat, show support for those protesting the cancellation of the Mummers Parade from their front stoop on 11th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Michael McGrail, a longtime mummer with a flair for parade day gimmicks, planned to spend the day patrolling 2nd Street, traditionally the nexus of post-parade revelry, giving out hand sanitizer in what he said would be a “mosh pit.”

Historically, attempts to cancel the Mummers parade have not gone well. The first two attempts to do so were in 1919 (due to World War I) and in 1934 (due to the Great Depression), The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently. In both of those years, Mummers still took to the streets to celebrate.

Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade.
Mummers march on 3rd Street in protest of the cancellation of their annual New Year’s Day parade. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The parade, which dates back to 1901 and is rooted in minstrelsy, has a long history of racism, sexism, and hate speech. Its most recent 2020 iteration was no exception, with members from the Froggy Carr Brigade wearing blackface.

This year, an attendee waived a large blue sign featuring white lettering, exclaiming: “MUMMERS LIVES MATTER.”

On social media, Mummer critics came out in force.

Twitter user John Cecil Price put it bluntly, calling the Mummers “experts at embarrassing themselves and the City of Philadelphia.”

“The native WhitePeople in South Philly run amuck every Jan. 1st.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal