The bureaucrat taking the fall for Philly’s protest response

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Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy speaks during the daily coronavirus update at City Hall on March 18, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy speaks during the daily coronavirus update at City Hall on March 18, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As Philly’s Managing Director, Brian Abernathy’s had a lot on his plate. The administration had gotten mostly positive reviews for how it handled the coronavirus crisis. But then, Abernathy became the target of protesters who blamed him for failing to heed their demands to defund the department, and for the city’s aggressive police response in the early days of the George Floyd protests.

Now, he’s stepping down in September.

Ryan Briggs with WHYY’s PlanPhilly explains how a one-time drama student from Arkansas became the second-in-command of Philadelphia. Why is he the one taking the fall for the city’s protest response — and not Mayor Jim Kenney?

Hear the whole story on The Why

On Abernathy’s role in deciding to use tear gas on protestors

Mayor Kenney was in an emergency command center and had approved the use of these tools. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw was there in the room when this occurred and signed off on the use of this type of force. And Abernathy was there as well. And so while I think it’s certainly fair to say that he shares in the culpability in terms of the city’s response to unrest, he wasn’t alone by any means. And he wasn’t the only person making these decisions … It’s true that Abernathy himself said in City Council testimony after all of this stuff happened that he was “out of touch.”

On why Mayor Kenney hasn’t taken as much blame

I think that’s more the best question in all of this. And I think it is in some ways really telling that you have somebody like Brian Abernathy who isn’t really the most prominent figure in City Hall, even if he did admit to being out of touch. I mean, at the end of the day, he isn’t the mayor, but he is the person who is, it would seem, being held the most accountable for these decisions that were made by the top of city leadership, by people like Jim Kenney and people like the police commissioner and others. And they’re not resigning. And they are facing the same calls as Abernathy saw to resign and saying that Kenny is out of touch and hasn’t made enough progress on issues like police reform. I don’t know if there is a single clear answer to why it’s happening this way, but that is what’s happening.

On who could replace Abernathy

First Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander would sort of be the next in line by default. He has several decades of experience in City Hall, but the mayor has said they plan to launch some kind of a national search to replace Abernathy. And Abernathy’s own reasoning for stepping down is that he thought it was time for different voices. And he also indicated that he wanted his successor to be an African American woman, so those maybe give you some clues as to where this is heading.

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