Just like their Republican counterparts in Cleveland, the delegates to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia will be sequestered far away from the daily misery and despair that’s the experience of their host city’s extreme poor.
This growing cohort of folks are overwhelmingly people of color and include tens of thousands of children who find themselves living in neighborhoods in the “City of Brotherly Love” pock marked with 40,000 vacant lots and zombie homes.
Back in 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that in addition to being “the poorest big city in America,” Philly had earned another dubious distinction of having “the highest rate of deep poverty _ people with incomes below half of the poverty line - of any of the nation's 10 most populous cities.”
Reporter Alfred Lubrano observed that “Philadelphia's deep-poverty rate is 12.2 percent, or nearly 185,000 people,” almost “twice the U.S. deep-poverty rate of 6.3 percent.”
As the elites of both parities prepare to enjoy the hospitality largesse of corporate America, it might be a good time to put Philadelphia’s misery index in a national context.
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $2 a day. Since 1996, and the Clinton era push “to end welfare as we knew it," the number of American families living in extreme poverty has spiked from 636,000 to 1.65 million by 2011 according to “The Rise of Extreme Poverty in the U.S.” (2015) by poverty researchers Kathryn Edin, and H. Luke Shaefer.
In that mix, say the researchers, are three million children nationally. In Philadelphia that translates to 60,000 kids.
Who wants to see that?
Evidently, not the people that run Philadelphia.
At first the city of Philadelphia rejected the permit application of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign to march on the convention that’s being held at the Wells Fargo Center. But thanks to a lawsuit brought by the Philadelphia office of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the group, which aligns itself with Dr. Martin Luther King’s poor people’s campaign, will get to march on the DNC’s opening day.
In their court filings, the ACLU's lawyers noted that the group had successfully marched 16 years ago when the GOP held its convention in Philadelphia “in order to confront the nation’s political leaders with the necessity of taking action to address poverty” and that the “plight of the poor in Philadelphia has only worsened since 2000.”
Back in 2000 during the RNC, the Pennsylvania State Police resorted to a controversial undercover infiltration of protesters in Philadelphia resulting in the arrest of 70 people and the seizure of a warehouse where street puppets were being assembled.
The pre-9/11, over-the-top state police "puppet bust," was an end run around a long-standing mayoral directive, limiting the use of such covert tactics in Philadelphia. In 1988 a federal judge ruled that an even larger undercover operation by local police surveilling protests around the celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution were unconstitutional.
Cheri Honkala has lived in Philadelphia for 30 years and is the national organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which is planning the march on the first day of the convention. “I have never seen anything as bad as it is now” when it comes to hardcore poverty in Philadelphia said Honkala.
Honkala ran as vice president on the 2012 Green Party ticket with presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein. But back in 2008 she was an enthusiastic supporter of candidate Barack Obama, taking to the streets with a bullhorn to press his case
But she soon became disillusioned. “In 2009 when we flew a bunch of women from around the country to Washington who were losing their homes to foreclosure to tell Congress their stories they got a bunch of empty promises,” recalls Honkala. “Every single one of them, including my sister, went on to lose their homes.”
“Here in Philadelphia we’ve thousands of empty homes and 27,000 homeless,” said Honkala. “If we wanted to end homelessness in this city we could. We don’t buy into the whole scarcity thing. It’s just straight up greed that keeps thing like they are.”
Honkala says that, increasingly, long-time residents are being forced out by gentrification driven “by the bankers, speculators, and developers” that are major political contributors to the local Democrats that run the city and the land use process. “The only positive thing is things have gotten so bad you can’t fool people anymore,” Honkala told Salon.
The Part of the Obama Legacy Nobody Talks About
When the Democrats picked Philadelphia to hold their convention they were selecting to celebrate in a state that is a kind of ground zero for the continued rise of wealth inequality nationally.
According to a study by Keystone Research, “during the economic expansions of the 1980s (1982- 1990) and 1990s (1991-2000), the bottom 99 percent of families in Pennsylvania captured between 64% and 65% of overall income growth in the commonwealth.”
But by the 21st century, Keystone reports income growth had become even more skewed. “The bottom 99 percent of families captured just over half of all income growth from 2001 to 2007.”
And it gets worse. “In the current economic expansion, which began in 2009, the bottom 99% of families have lost ground so far and the top 1 percent has been the only group to see its real incomes rise in Pennsylvania. As a result the top 1 percent of earners in Pennsylvania have captured more than 100% of overall income growth (124.4% to be precise).”
The Wealthy Rediscover Urban Life
Even as so many struggle in Philadelphia, the city’s declining crime rate is drawing affluent newcomers, according to Rolf Pendall, director of Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
“Once upon a time people with wealth wouldn’t have stayed in the city. They were leaving the city,” said Pendall. “That’s changed with the millennial surge, empty nesters and the city rebranding itself from its gritty blue collar image to one that revolves around arts and culture.”
In his study “World’s Apart; Inequality between America’s Most and Least Affluent Neighborhoods,” Pendrall looked at the demographic and income trends in over 200 of America’s commuting zones that had at least 250,000 people. Based on that survey Philadelphia’s scored second highest, only behind Dallas, on Pendall’s wealth inequality index.
But it’s not only the spike in the income of the incoming high-end earners that creates the growing wealth gap, according to Pendrall. “In 166 other CZs (commuting zones) the largest of which included Boston, Los Angeles, Newark, and Philadelphia incomes fell in the bottom tracts but rose in top ones,” according to Pendrall’s study.
Pendall thinks it's possible for cities like Philadelphia to use planning to insure that a city encourage low income families to stick around and benefit from their community’s revitalization.
“Key to that however is rebuilding trust between the local government and the citizenry,” Pendall told Salon. “This is an issue across the country.”
Trust between the African-American community and the Philadelphia power structure has always been in short supply. And the distrust transcends racial identity per se, because often local neighborhood residents are fighting a city hall led by African-American elected leadership.
You Can’t Fight City Hall Because They Can Bomb Your House
Post-Dallas, but pre-Democratic Convention, it is instructive to remember that it was in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 that the city’s police force dropped a bomb from a state police helicopter onto the home that was the base for MOVE, an armed, radical, anti-authoritarian mostly African-American group committed to going back to nature.
The aerial bombardment set off a fire that killed six adults and five children and swept through the densely populated row house neighborhood destroying more than 60 homes and leaving 250 people homeless.
This incident has been widely reported as the only example of local law enforcement dropping a bomb on an American residential neighborhood.
Several years earlier, MOVE followers had exchanged gunfire with police that left one police officer dead. Several of MOVE’s supporters were tried and convicted for their participation in the gun battle.
In the subsequent years before the fire, MOVE members were unrelenting in their campaign to have their comrades released, who they believed had been unjustly convicted.
To be sure, there were major tensions between the MOVE adherents and their immediate neighbors, who appealed to City Hall to intervene. Little could the complaining neighbors contemplate what would follow.
The day of the bombing, the police arrived with search warrants for illegal weapons and explosives. Before the bombing, MOVE members refused law enforcement’s commands and a multi-hour siege ensued in which gunshots were exchanged. Police fired 10,000 rounds, and used water cannons and tear gas.
The mayor at the time was Wilson Goode, the first African-American to lead Philadelphia. After the conflagration, which made national headlines, Goode convened the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission.
The Commission took extensive testimony and held public hearings. The members of the police bomb squad, who were involved with the bomb’s preparation and the aerial bombardment, refused to testify, invoking their fifth amendment rights.
According to the Temple University archival synopsis of the proceedings, the “commission deliberated for several months before issuing its report,” which “was a sweeping denunciation of the actions of the city government, typified by the finding that 'Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.' "
But in Philadelphia the saga of betrayal and community mistrust doesn’t end there. It goes on for decades.
In the aftermath of the fiery destruction of an entire residential neighborhood, the city shifted into heavy damage control, quickly rebuilding the homes it’s police department had leveled. But in short order the new houses began to fall apart requiring chronic repairs which never seemed to hold.
By 2000, then-Mayor John Street was offering buyouts of $125,000 per household with an additional $25,000 for moving expenses. Roughly half the homeowners took him up on the offer for their homes, which at that point were worth just $75,000.
Two dozen homeowners pressed on with their claims in federal court and were awarded $13 million dollars, which broke down to about a half -million per plaintiff. By the time the award made it through the appeals process the residents who took the award ended up getting $190,000 for their homes.
Where are we 31 years after the bombing?
According to Sergeant Eric Gripp, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, the city has made significant strides in reducing police-involved shootings and in the reduction of both violent and property crime.
“In 2007 we had 62 police-involved shootings and last year we got that down to 23,” Gripp told Salon. “In 2007 we had 391 homicides and in 2014 we got as low as 248 but last year in 2015 we lost some ground with 280 murders” Gripp says in the 90s the annual homicide body count was closer to 500.
Back in 2013, after a spike in police-involved shootings, former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey asked for help from the Department of Justice which runs an office that provides technical advice and works with local departments to develop a roadmap to improve police performance.
Gripp says one of the reforms that came out of that process is the awarding of so called Medals of Tactical De-escalation for officers that resolve potentially fatal confrontations by de-escalating. Since late last year 40 of these awards have been handed out.
These are often cases where officers “would have been acquitted of charges if they fired their weapon to defend themselves but in the moment they figure out another way,” Gripp told Salon.
Gripp says so far year to date shootings are up so far this year but that overall the city’s crime numbers remain historically low.
Stop and Frisk Still A Major Issue Says ACLU
While New York City’s very aggressive stop-and-frisk strategy during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure made national headlines, the reliance on the tactic has also been a hot point of contention in Philadelphia.
“When we initially filed we were seeing 250,000 stop and frisks annually where the police were often stopping people for no lawful reason and it was skewed so the racial bias was clear,” Mary Catherine Roper, the ACLU’s deputy legal director told Salon.
“Now, remember we are talking about a city population of just one and a half million” compared to New York’s over eight million said Roper. “That means that here in Philadelphia we were seeing a much higher stop and frisk rate than was the case in New York City. And we are not even talking about the quarter of a million vehicle stops we see here.”
Back in June of 2011 the ACLU and the city entered into a consent decree. “Up until this point I would give them a C-minus in terms of improving the way they are handling stop and frisk,” said Roper.
Yet Roper says in the last mayoral election the issue of stop and frisk was a defining issue. “Now we have a new mayor and new police commissioner appointed from within and they have instituted a whole lot of new protocols and we are anxiously awaiting the latest data to see if it has resulted in any improvements.”