(Council President Darrell Clarke)
This Tuesday, Philadelphians awoke to scenes of arson and vandalism. After weeks of a campaign warning of impending “direct action” against “gentri scum”, the outside agitators acted. Dressed in all black, wielding weapons, and attacking indiscriminately, they burned homes in Point Breeze, broke windows in South Kensington, and continued their pattern of vandalism across the city.
From some quarters, the official response of the City has been strong. The Philadelphia Police have already managed to apprehend two suspects, anarchist activists Geoffrey Suchowski, 45, and Patricia Monahan, 28, of Doylestown and Rhawnhurst, respectively.
City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson issued a strong statement condemning the arson, noted the danger to all of his constituents created by the fire, and made additional funds available for the reward. This was a magnanimous move from the Councilman, who faced a contentious 2015 primary challenge from Ori Feibush, the site’s developer, and whose office had actively opposed the development.
Some other Philadelphians, unfortunately, had a very different reaction. Facebook has given us many options when it comes to “reacting” to posts, but choosing a ❤️ to react to arson and vandalism seems a bit wrong to me. One commenter stated that it was a shame that the owner wasn’t inside. Some neighbors decided to credit God for causing the fire that could have killed the firefighters and their neighbors.
And in a truly astounding statement, our City Council President Darrell Clarke, the unanimous choice of City Council for the job, decided to blame the victims.
Clarke stated that these attacks are a sign that people are upset with gentrification, and that "we've got to make sure that we manage growth in a way that individuals that have lived in these communities all their lives continue to stay — that's what we're attempting to do.”
This, in response to attacks on Philadelphia residents by political extremists from the suburbs.
A day later, on Twitter, Clarke finally made a meager admission that the violent tactics might have been ill-considered, suggesting that people who are concerned about gentrification should get active politically, rather than “take it out on your neighbors.”
This victim-blaming rhetoric from the Council President sends exactly the wrong message to everyone involved. To those victimized by these extremists, it says that the City doesn’t care about the threats to their lives and property. To those who committed these acts, it says the City sympathizes with their motivations.
Instead, our Council President should have told anyone looking to “smash gentri scum” to consider who they are attacking. The neighborhoods in and around Center City have seen an influx of people from all types of backgrounds: students from across the country and the world, immigrants from Central America and Southeast Asia, teachers, social workers, and others have moved into Northern Liberties, South Philly, Kensington, and Brewerytown. These new residents are people, fellow Philadelphians, not “gentri scum”.
As a life-long Philadelphian, I sympathize with many of the complaints people have had about the surge of development in our neighborhoods. We have contractors who break the rules and dump construction waste on our streets, a parking situation that seems to get more difficult every week, and in some areas of the city, a sad history of purposeful displacement to reconcile.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that there aren’t problems that need to be solved and positive changes to be made in the development process, but targeting new residents, whether they are real estate developers or teachers, is not part of the solution.
Even though the Council President did eventually issue a statement asking folks who are “concerned about gentrification” not to “take it out on their neighbors”, it shouldn’t take that long to get a less equivocal call to abstain from violence from Council President Clarke.
Even Clarke’s revised statement leaves much to be desired. Is it really necessary to pretend that these attacks were the result of genuine local concern over development? A 45-year -old violent extremist from Doylestown isn’t the neighbor of anyone who lives in South Kensington. These attacks had nothing to do with tensions from gentrification and everything to do with a few bored individuals’ fascination with violent activism as a hobby.
Instead of blaming his own constituents for the attacks on their lives and property, Clarke should point the finger squarely where it belongs—-at the suburban vandals and those cheering them on.
Daniel Pearson is a current South Philadelphia resident, Central High School Graduate, Frankford native, and former Data and Outreach Coordinator for City Commissioner Al Schmidt.