Archive: August, 2011
Update: Inquirer now reporting that Ackerman departure will be announced today.
Last Wednesday, black activists and legislators demonstrated their support for embattled Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. But two leading black legislators weren’t there: West Philly Rep. James Roebuck, minority chair of the House Education Committee, and State Sen. Vincent Hughes, minority Appropriations chair.
In the wake of Ackerman’s bungled handling of school budget cuts, persistent critics (citing the response to violence against Asian students at South Philly High, cheating on standardized tests, an imperious administrative style...) have ultimately succeeded in building an air of finality around the superintendent’s departure. Meanwhile, some members of the black community have grown increasingly protective of the superintendent, and Ackerman herself has accused critics like Northeast Philly Rep. Michael McGeehan of being motivated by racism and sexism.
State Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams, Shirley Kitchen and Leanna Washington and Reps. Tony Payton, Curtis Thomas, and Ronald Waters all showed up to defend Ackerman, according to The Inquirer (a copy of which Ackerman supporter Sacaree Rhodes burned outside District headquarters, calling the paper’s coverage racist).
So where was Rep. Roebuck?
“I wasn’t in Philadelphia,” Roebuck tells City Paper. “We had an Education Committee hearing on vouchers and charters.”
Fair enough. But would he have been there, had he been in town? He said that he normally attends Black Caucus meetings. But, I asked, what about an event demonstrating support for Ackerman? He wouldn’t say.
“I have some concerns about School District policy and that’s where I am on that,” says Roebuck, a critic of the school vouchers bill that Sen. Williams strongly supports. “I’m hoping we can get beyond this discourse that’s not helpful to the students of the city.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Ackerman, and I suspect that Roebuck wouldn’t have been at that event under any circumstance.
As for Senator Hughes, he declined to comment.
In June, Hughes did play a major role in lobbying Council to raise funds to help fill the huge School District budget shortfall, in part to convince a Philadelphia-hostile and Republican-dominated legislature to chip in. Hughes and Nutter were “stunned to learn” that Ackerman had, without informing anyone, found federal funds to save full-day kindergarten--undermining Nutter and Hughes’ primary talking points.
Hughes had previously expressed his support for Ackerman at an April event, months before the budget bungling reportedly annoyed him.
So did State Rep. and Democratic nominee for Sheriff Jewell Williams--who also didn’t show up yesterday.
"We support Dr. Ackerman and all of the work that she does," Williams told The Inquirer at the time. "We're with her 100 percent...If it is a decision that he is making based on color, then he [Rep. McGeehan] has a problem with us - the Philadelphia delegation of legislators.”
(Rep. Cherelle Parker, a former aid to Councilwoman Marian Tasco, wasn’t there to back Ackerman either. But Parker hasn’t been in the news at all since her May arrest for driving while intoxicated.)
Follow Daniel Denvir on Twitter @DanielDenvir
[Update: Saturday, 10:30pm]
“We walkin down the street--fuck the police.”
“Fight for teen jobs, not flash mobs.”
“Who runs South Street? Not the police.”
“We need schools, not a curfew.”
Overheard on South Street: passersby respond. Some are sympathetic, some are confused, some aren’t happy. One source says that someone broke into a car belonging to a Civil Affairs Unit officer--no indication it was a protester.
Drunken young white bachelorette: “Thank you!” to police.
A black woman explains to a mixed race group of friends: “They say it’s an attack on black people. But it’s not. It’s just that the kids attacking people happen to be black.”
Young woman in a hijab laughs from across street, joins in: “Not the police!”
Young black man, arguing protesters’ point to his family: “They need more schools, more activities. They probably wouldn’t be out here causing trouble.”
Elderly black woman to family: “Um, let’s get back to the car please.”
Old white woman to husband: "What are they protesting?"
Two young black men, leaning against a store facade: “They talkin about that flash mob shit.”
Small white woman, passing out flyers: “Stop the attack on the African community. Stop the curfew.”
20-something black man, talking to friends and laughing: “I’ve seen the flash mobs on the news, and they’re African and American. And this white lady rolls up, ‘Stop the attack on Africans?’ It’s like, I am an American.”
Policeman talking to other officers: “Who runs South Street, not the police? I’ll tell you what. Get robbed and don’t call me.”
Puerto Rican man to black cop: “Hey, thank you man, for doing your job.”
Coffeeshop employee on phone: “The protest turned out to be the opposite of what we all thought it would be. A bunch of white people. We had thought about closing just in case...”
[Note: protest was about half black, half white.]
[9pm update from previous post]
About 40 people, black and white, gathered at 8:30pm at South and Broad Streets preparing to walk down South Street to challenge the youth curfew, implemented by Mayor Michael Nutter in response to the recent violence.
A protest organizer told City Paper that all youth present were encouraged to be with guardians and that there are not plans to violate the curfew.
A dozen policemen gathered across the way, and a cruiser made its way down the street loudspeaker blaring: “By order of Mayor Michael Nutter, the curfew for juveniles will be in effect in 25 minutes, at 9pm.”
This Saturday, activist organizations are planning to violate the youth curfew on Center City put into place by Mayor Michael Nutter in response to recent "flash mob" attacks on pedestrians. According to a Facebook page, people will gather at Broad and South Streets to challenge the curfew, alleging that it is discriminatory and racist.
The "community walk" is being organized by Philadelphia Coalition of the Heart (PCOH), Black is Back Coalition (BIBC), Hip Hop Party for the People (HHPP), and Beats, Rhymes, and Life (BRL):
"We call upon the City Government to immediately lift this discriminatory and unproductive curfew and join us and the masses of people in creating real economic development and opportunities, quality schools, productive recreational activities, and safe spaces for our youth to express themselves freely and without judgement[sic]."
The Facebook announcement, which appears to have been created on Wednesday, has 43 people attending so far. The document's "Principles of Unity" have a black nationalist flavor, though Philly's highest-profile black radical group, International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, is not mentioned. Their candidate for mayor Diop Olugbala has been an outspoken critic of Nutter and the curfew.
Point #9: We reject the government and media criminalization of the resistance and creativity of Black youth and their labeling of them as “flash mobs”.
Point #10: We demand an end to the U.S. and Europe’s war on Africa and Black people in Philadelphia, London, Congo, Haiti and anywhere else in the world where Black people are.
Point #11: We declare that Michael Nutter and forces like him do not represent the best interests of the Black community in Philadelphia or anywhere in the world. They represent white power in Black face.
Point #12: We call on white people to stand in principled solidarity with the demands of this document.
Student guestworkers at a Pennsylvania Hershey’s factory are on strike. The students paid $6,000 for a summer of work and cultural exchange and ended up working in a Hershey’s factory, and were allegedly threatened with deportation when they complained. Today, they protested outside the State Department office at 6th and Market in Philly--where I caught up this student striker from China.
Student guestworkers from around the world use J-1 visas to experience a summer in the United States. Thus the ubiquitous Eastern European presence on boardwalks up and down the East Coast.
Critics blame the State Department for lax oversight.
Philadelphia immigrant rights activists continue to pressure Mayor Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams to cancel a program that gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents direct real-time access to the city's Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS), which holds data on arrestees.
DA Williams refused to send someone to meet with the group, while Director of Multicultural Affairs Izzy Colon received the letters on behalf of Mayor Nutter.
Marta Villanueva and Jen Rock of the New Sanctuary Movement arrived at 10:30 a.m. today to deliver the stack of 525 letters to the DA demanding the city cease collaboration with ICE. Rock says that she had spoken with Director of Community Outreach and Government Relations Vernon Price, a former ward leader from East Mt. Airy, and let him know they would be delivering the letters.
Remember the drug-infested Conrail railroad tracks we wrote about this spring?
The tracks, which used to host 8 busy tracks but now see only one active one, run from the waterfront along a viaduct over Lehigh Avenue, and then descend to street level just in time to intersect the open-air drug markets of Kensington. The tracks are a magnet for drug use and other crime.
You can read more about the nightmares nearby residents face — and the difficulty they, community groups, and the City Paper had in finding railroad or city officials ready to take responsibility for the situation — in our piece, "The Wasteland."
Since then, though, we're happy to report some progress: As "I reported in last week's A Million Stories," the city's Managing Director's Office, has been meeting with Conrail officials and the community groups.
Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald tells CP that, working with Conrail and the Streets department, they've hauled hundreds of tons of trash off the tracks, cut back weeds that obscured the view from the street, installed barriers to prevent short dumping, and say the next step is to install lighting over the tracks.
Brother Joseph Dudeck, development manager for the Archdiocese's Community Development Office — and who had been a voice of skepticism when it came to Conrail's willingness to act on the situation — told CP recently that he was impressed by the city's and Conrail's efforts.
The big question for many residents will be whether Conrail will replace the ancient iron fencing that provided, in some places at least, essentially no barrier to entrance.
Pennsylvania is spending $400 million to construct two new prisons at the SCI-Graterford site in Montgomery County after slashing nearly $1 billion in public education funding. The funds are in addition to the $1.8 billion corrections budget signed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, an increase of $208,000 from last year (capital projects are counted separately).
Today, Decarcerate PA staged a protest outside the Philadelphia office of South Jersey-based Hill International, Inc., a major global construction management firm overseeing the "Phoenix East and Phoenix West" project at Graterford.
A heavyweight campaign--including good government group Committee of Seventy, The Daily News, NAACP and the software geniuses at Azavea--forced City Council to do something it initially really didn’t want to do: hold public meetings on the once-a-decade process of redistricting, which is the where Council districts get redrawn to reflect population changes.
Council has long shut out the public to remake districts with an eye to insuring their incumbency: districts that zip in and out block by block, picking up particular neighborhoods or allied ward leaders and cutting out others. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s “snake of the seventh” district is considered the most gerrymandered in the entire United States of America.
But what exactly does public participation in redistricting consist of? Everyone agrees that redistricting should be taken out of Council’s secretive and self-interested hands. But what does the public have to offer this process?
It’s Our Money (Daily News/WHYY) says the “public should be testifying about the values they think should drive district boundaries. Is it important that your neighborhood not get split between two Council members? That police districts correspond to Council districts? Which is more important?”
I personally have no idea.
Okay, I'm exaggerating: The campaign for citizen participation is great. It can, for example, help ensure that the rights of minority voters--like, say, Latinos--are respected. But it has a lot more to do with keeping a public eye on Council to discourage shenanigans than with average citizens possessing meaningful opinions about what shape their City Council district should be.
I suspect that most Philadelphians would love to draw themselves out of their current districts--that is, if there were some place better to go.
Nation-wide, the movement to take partisan politics out of redistricting has focused on putting non-partisan expert boards in charge of the process.
Committee of Seventy says they are formulating recommendations to do something of the sort for 2021.
“A Charter change would be required, I believe,” writes Seventy President Zachary Stalberg. “Under the current rules, or any future process I can imagine, citizen input is good. But if City Council is ultimately the decider, it is extreme wishful thinking in my view to pretend that citizen participation, or even software games, will somehow make this a nonpolitical process.”
Keeping a public eye on the process is a nice first step, but it’s no panacea. Don’t expect much change until someone takes redistricting away from Council and puts it somewhere they can’t find it.
News from the Weekend: Philly bad at collecting taxes, Council good at maintaining budget, and, of course, the latest in flash mobbery.
Here's what you missed out on that innertube this weekend:
— Patrick Kerkestra has a terrific, data-mappy investigative piece on how bad Philadelphia seems to be at collecting overdue property taxes.
— The Mayor of Chester called for a police officer to be suspended without pay after fatally shooting a 21-year-old suspect who was allegedly armed, prompting ano nline lashback from law enforcement officials and others. Mayor Wendell Butler says he was trying to prevent a riot — the victim's family has been protesting his shooting for several days. Said Butler to the Daily News:
"It's a death knell for me," he said of the decision that could end his political career. "But I flash-forwarded, in my mind, to London [where riots began with the protest of a fatal police-involved shooting]. ... If I've got to sacrifice myself to save my city, I'll do that,"
— The Daily News observes that Philadelphia City Council has a big budget and doesn't say much about how it's spent.
— Police detain 50 kids on Friday night and 20 on Saturday in the city's special new super-curfew zone in an effort to stop flash mobs. Also: Mayor had rec centers open late and held a big bowling party, which was a success, except that a girl was stabbed by a young man who had been attending the party on their way home afterwards. Injuries were minor.
Controversial geologist says Marcellus Shale drilling less profitable than believed and that wells may "decline so fast that you never stop drilling."
In my piece in this week's City Paper, lone-wolf geologist Arthur Berman — one of the sources for the recent NY Times piece citing disputes within the energy industry over whether shale drilling is actually profitable — describes how he came to believe that gas companies are understating their cost and overstating their profits.
How — given the thousands of Marcellus Shale wells that have been drilled already in Pennyslvania — can that be?
For one thing, Berman says, some drilling activity is taking place simply in order for drillers to preserve their leases, which often contain clauses reverting the land back to the owner if production doesn't begin.
Indeed, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told the Inquirer last year that: "Half of our drilling is kind of nonvoluntary in the sense that we're drilling to hold leases, not drilling because we think $4 is a great gas price."
Berman also argues that gas companies may have overestimated (or, to be less generous, exaggerated) the amount of gas an individual well will actually produce before it ceases to be economically useful. Berman suspects the wells are drying up quicker than previously thought.
If that's the case, he says, "the drilling never stops ... Our findings say … that the wells decline so fast that you never stop drilling. You have to continue at the rate you’re drilling now."
Berman, who maintains the blog Petrolium Truth Report, is a controversial figure, and one of the first (if not the first) experts to challenge the economic model of shale gas drilling.
You can read my full story on Berman and his findings here.
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