Editor's note: This is the sixth part in Frontpage Mag's new series on Racist Mayors. (See previous parts below this article). Stay tuned for more installments.
As a Philadelphia City Councilman in 2014, two years before his election as the city’s 99th mayor, Jim Kenney, an Eagles fan, tweeted that Chris Christie, a Cowboys fan, was a “fat ass.” Kenney then let it rip: “You suck! Kissing Texas ass for 2016!”
While sports fanaticism might be a forgivable offense among overzealous males, two years earlier in 2012, Kenney tweeted Lou Dobbs after the latter made critical comments about Obama’s reelection: “You are a large asshole. Crawl back under your rock. You are a hater and a creep hiding behind your microphone.”
Kenney’s obsession with proctology-laced tweets was not lost on his staff. The solution was the application of a phone app that screened the Councilman’s outgoing messages. The child-proof controls worked like magic. In no time, Kenney was ‘tweety clean’ despite a later discovery that he was paying someone $29,000 a year to tweet for him.
At the height of Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral campaign, local media referred to Kenney, the son of a working-class Irish South Philadelphia family, as “Jimmy from the block.” The term of endearment, while having an old school Philadelphia feel, did not mean that the Councilman gave off chummy-- even happy-- neighborhood vibes. If anything, the reverse was true: “Jimmy from the block” has always come across as a remote, isolated and pensive individual as if he’d spent a lifetime trying to find the right “political identity.”
This (existentially tortured) look of his spiked during the June 2020 George Floyd riots when nearly every political protest in the city turned into a melee of broken windows, fires and demolished storefronts, especially in the city’s tony Rittenhouse Square section where rioters smashed and looted A-list businesses. Kenney was not very visible then. For many Philadelphians he appeared to be hiding in City Hall until he could figure out what to do, although he did order a daily 8PM curfew when not issuing occasional statements reaffirming that the destruction taking place throughout the city was being caused by a minority of trouble makers.
While his left-wing political ties forbade him from condemning BLM or Antifa outright he did what most leftist mayors and governors did in June 2020: he blamed the violence on a few unruly types, infiltrators who were “not real protesters.” What he conveniently forgot was the fact that the ‘few unruly’ types numbered in the hundreds or thousands and that their actions crippled the city for weeks, if not months. The fact is that almost every George Floyd protest in the City of Philadelphia at that time ended in violence or some kind of mayhem with the exception of the June 6th protest in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where 2500 protesters shouted, “No Justice, no Peace, no Racist Police.” The fact that there was no violence at that rally surprised many people.
By June 2020, Kenney’s lefty wings were already poised for flight, having been firmly fitted in May 2015 when he won the Democratic primary. As The Atlantic noted then, “The Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor pitted a crusading left-winger against a charter-school advocate backed by suburban hedge-fund magnates. This time, the left-winger, a former city councilman named Jim Kenney, actually won.”
“Jimmy from the block” was swept into the mayor’s office by progressives, many of them ‘urbanist’ millennial types who saw his victory as a sign that the Democratic Party, nationally, would soon head in a radical leftward direction.
Nanoseconds after being sworn in as mayor (but before the start of his Inaugural bash), Kenney signed an executive order reinstating Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city for [illegal] immigrants.
“If this were Cousin Emilio or Cousin Guido, we wouldn’t have this problem because they’re white,” Kenney said. He then went on to criticize his own Irish South Philadelphia community for telling Italian immigrants years ago to “go back where they came from.”
The mayor’s executive order put critics of illegal immigration on notice that he was aligning himself with the policies of big city leftist mayors like Bill de Blasio of New York and London Breed of San Francisco. If a new “progressivist” policy popped up in New York City, it was only a matter of time before it made its way to Philadelphia.
Kenney felt so comfortable in his role as a pro-sanctuary city advocate that he danced an Irish jig in his City Hall office when in June of 2018 a federal judge ruled in favor of the city’s sanctuary city status. That little dance (captured on video) put city residents on notice that Philadelphia was on a big progressivist roll… and there’d be no going back.
The early days of Kenney’s administration--before the Frank Rizzo and Christopher Columbus statue controversies, COVID, and the George Floyd riots-- were perhaps his happiest as mayor because he had not yet gone full de Blasio.
An especially exuberant Kenney, for instance, can be seen in videos rushing onstage at the October 2017 Out & Equal Workplace Summit. Greeting the audience to the tune of Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom,’ he told the cheering crowd to keep the faith.
“The last time I felt so unsteady was 1968 when I was 10 years old and the world seemed to be coming apart like it is today. But the thing I know about 1968 is that we got through it, and we will get through Donald Trump and we will get through this.” The crowd gave Kenney a standing ovation, further proof (not that any was needed) that there was little ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ when it came to Donald Trump fans.
Kenney, who prefers to read his speeches (which tend to be rather short), delivers them with as little audience eye contact as possible. While making his 2015 victory speech, for instance, he barely lifted his eyes from his handheld script.
Donald Trump’s presidency unhinged Kenney to such a degree that the mayor seemed to take a sabbatical from focusing on Philadelphia issues but instead concentrated on all things Trump.
“It's sad -- terribly sad,” Kenney tweeted after President Trump told four Democratic Congresswomen to go back to the crime-infested countries where they came from, “that Trump tells American Congresswomen to leave the country they love because they don't see the world through his racist eyes -- on the same day that ICE rounds up families seeking refuge in USA. We must continue to RESIST!”
Of course, it’s highly probable that Trump was referring to the ancestral homes of these four Congresswomen rather than implying that the women themselves migrated to the United States. Yet this nuance was lost on progressives, thanks mainly to—what else?-- Trump Derangement Syndrome. The mindless overuse of the word ‘racist,’ the left’s favorite attack word, as well as the use of the word ‘resist’ (in capital letters, Antifa style) was another indication that “Jimmy from the block” was aligning himself not only with de Blasio but with the slogans of street revolutionaries.
Wokeness in Philadelphia is its own style of pandemic, affecting not only politicians but every cultural institution from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to any number of museums or libraries that all drink from the same Flavor Aid. The woke pandemic is so far reaching in the City of Brotherly Love and its suburbs that it has even affected museums like the Pearl S Buck house museum in Bucks County, where one can sign up for a so called social justice tour, presumably to learn how Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth and 99 other books and who died in 1973, would have behaved as a Black Lives Matter advocate.
Kenney’s full immersion into wokeness can be traced to the time when he and DA Larry Krasner tied the hands of the police during the June 2020 George Floyd riots.
That’s when marauding street mobs trashed the downtown area and then proceeded to invade the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, Fishtown and Port Richmond. Port Richmond’s multiple strip malls were delicious targets for the marauders.
For five or six consecutive nights the people of these neighborhoods had to contend with the destruction of stores and restaurants, exploding ATMs, fires and toxic smoke as well as the constant sound of police sirens and police helicopters. Cautious store owners not in the direct line of fire along Aramingo Avenue in Port Richmond boarded up their businesses as a precaution. They also closed early and turned off all their lights at night so that great stretches of the city were in complete darkness. Occasionally, random rioters would storm these closed-off ‘safe areas’ and destroyed a few properties just to show authorities that they “were around.”
Nothing seemed to stop the riots until the National Guard was deployed—a day late and a dollar short, as they say—but this was well after the destruction had taken place. Armed guardsmen now appeared on the street, Third World style, but that didn’t change the fact that many of the stores taking precautions were still boarded up, some remaining closed for a month.
Residents in the neighborhoods near Aramingo Avenue wondered how long it would be before the mobs got to their home streets. People began to talk about protecting their families. Protection from police was not an option because the DA and the mayor had made sure that the police would be doing as little as possible. During the West Philadelphia riots, the police had actually run from the rioters when a number of police vehicles were turned over and set on fire.
Why was it taking the City of Philadelphia so long to bring the anarchists under control if only a “few unruly’ types were responsible for the mayhem?
When a group of neighborhood Fishtown men, frustrated at the city’s inability to end the violence, armed themselves with baseball bats and formed a ring in front of Fishtown’s 26th Police District when it was announced that an anti-police rally would take place there, Philadelphia leftists went crazy despite the fact that during the riots about 50 ATMs were blown up by thieves using M100 and M250 explosives in an attempt to steal the money inside.
“The 26th District police station was where a group of mostly white men assembled Monday wielding baseball bats, purportedly to protect police from protesters,” WHYY reported on June 2020. “The group assaulted three people and heckled protestors demonstrating against police brutality. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney later condemned their actions.”
The appearance of the men with baseball bats was understandable given the fact that nearly every George Floyd protest in the city that began peacefully ended on a not-so-peaceful note. The neighbors with the bats had no reason to suspect that this “peaceful protest” would be any different, so they were there just in case.
As fast as a grease fire in a frying pan, the focus in the media went from anarchist mobs burning down and looting businesses to a bunch of white men calling protestors mean names.
WHYY quoted one protestor, an area store owner, who said that he wanted “a better explanation of why the group of white men with weapons were allowed to disrupt a peaceful protest and violate the curfew.” The man added that he wanted the 26th District “to condemn the incident as racist.”
Kenney jumped into the fray. "We do not condone vigilantism," he said. "We understand that communities desire to protect their neighborhood, and if they want to do that in peace, we would allow it, regardless of neighborhood. But armed vigilantism will not be tolerated moving forward. I am glad police moved in to eventually disperse the group, but I am not happy about how long it took."
How long it took?
Did Jim Kenney really say that when row house residents in the 26th District and elsewhere could not leave their houses at night for over a week because the city was under siege?
Philadelphia’s news media misled the public when they stated that hundreds of Fishtown residents participated in the anti-police brutality protest in front of the 26th District. What the media did not report was the fact that these so-called ‘Fishtowners’ were mainly young transplants from the suburbs, New York and other cities, the very same millennials who expressed their love for Jim Kenney’s leftist politics.
As a writer for The Philadelphia Citizen put it, “Millennials love Kenney because he’d grabbed the low-hanging progressive fruit — LGBT equality, marijuana decriminalization, bike lanes.” But the Fishtown residents protesting outside the 26th District were anything but the real indigenous Fishtowners who had settled in the neighborhood decades before. Those people, the real Fishtowners, tended to side with—or at least understand--the motivations of the men with baseball bats.
Kenney’s woke credentials were matted and framed when he opted to get rid of the Frank Rizzo statue near City Hall, and the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. These actions codified him as a hard-core ideologue, Mr. Antifa (with manners) in a suit.
It should be noted that the city’s mania for statue destruction got a kick start in 2019 with the Flyers’ covering and removal of the statue of Kate Smith, known as “The First Lady of Radio,” and as the best singer of “God Bless America,” outside their sports arena in South Philadelphia. As the singer of some 3,000 songs, it was discovered that Smith sang and recorded two songs now considered “racist,” one of them, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” a hit song from a 1931 Broadway revue that was also sung by Paul Robeson, a black man, and meant (many say) to be a satire on white supremacy.
Kenney was silent during the removal of the Kate Smith statue but the iconoclastic act emboldened the city’s leftist ideologues. The heat accelerated when a leftist writer wrote on WHYY’s web page: “Watching the Flyers rid themselves of Kate Smith’s racial baggage in a period of two days places a spotlight firmly on Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who promised in 2017 to move the statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo from Paine Plaza, the courtyard in front of the Municipal Services Building. That’s public property. “
Statue destruction in the city would then proceed like the fall of a row of dominoes.
Since its installation in 1998, the Frank Rizzo statue near City Hall has been routinely spray-painted with expletives and anarchy-laced political slogans. Though the statue divided city residents, demands for its removal were routinely dismissed. Further civil dialogue, however, ended when Kenney finally ordered the quick removal of the statue in the dead of night, after BLM leftists splashed it in red paint and attempted to torch it. The city moved the statue to a storage facility where it has been ever since. (BLM protestors also attempted to topple a statue of Mathias Baldwin, an exemplary citizen who never owned slaves and who did much to educate poor black children but because it was a statue of a white man it was perceived as racist by the rioter iconoclasts.)
One year before the Rizzo statue’s removal Kenney promised to move it to South Philadelphia, Rizzo’s home turf and historically Italian enclave. Kenney changed his mind about moving it there when the leftists who called for the Rizzo statue removal were now calling for the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia to be removed.
Not even South Philadelphia was safe from the ever-widening woke pandemic that would eventually put the Columbus statue in a wooden box before its dethronement and transport to a warehouse, despite massive protests from South Philadelphians and others.
Kenney and the woke political machine in City Hall had done it again. They had gotten their way. Yet even this radical gesture, which should have earned Kenney a Che Guevara award from sniveling leftist policymakers, wasn’t enough to placate their lust for further revolutionary action.
Left-wing writers were now taking aim at Kenney for not being radical enough.
One writer for Philadelphia Magazine (a magazine that becomes woker with each issue) stated, ”Kenney has treated racial disparity in a majority Black and brown city like a check-box issue….. He campaigned on a pledge to end stop-and-frisk (and later backpedaled). He vowed to remove the Frank Rizzo statue … eventually (and then was forced to do it sooner than he had planned to). He has declared his intent to take down the Christopher Columbus statue (but only after vigilante South Philly racists left him no other choice).”
In Philadelphia, you are a racist if you want to protect a statue.
Kenney’s MO has always been to copy other leftist progressive mayors. No doubt his decision to remove the Rizzo statue (in the dead of night) was inspired in part by the decision of former Baltimore mayor, Catherine Pugh in 2017 who ordered the removal of four bronze Confederate statues from their pedestals “quietly and quickly” in the dead of night. Today, those Baltimore statues rest in an empty city lot.
With South Philadelphia no longer registering as a safe space for public monuments, soon after the Rizzo statue’s removal, leftists across the U.S. began beheading and removing Christopher Columbus statues, which, during the twentieth century, were erected in communities to celebrate Italian heritage and the immigrant experience.
When word spread in South Philadelphia that Kenney wanted to remove Columbus from the neighborhood’s Marconi Plaza to placate leftists, in response many living in multigenerational brick row homes built by Italian ancestors formed an armed militia to guard the monument.
These were the “racists.”
Kenney condemned the armed individuals ‘protecting’ the Columbus statue, just as he had condemned the vigilantes in Fishtown who surfaced only because the city hadn’t done its job in disallowing the rioters to burn and wreck the city for almost a full week.
Kenney tweeted, “All vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city.”
“Jimmy from the block” then trotted out typical leftist vocabulary: “Like many communities across the country, Philadelphia is in the midst of a much-needed reckoning about the legacy of systemic racism and oppression in this country and around the world.”
‘Systemic racism’ is an empty high operative leftist phrase implying that every facet of American culture is infected with racism, from Our Gang comedies to Aunt Jemima pancake mix. America is contaminated: America stinks. .
“Part of that reckoning requires reexamining what historical figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces. In recent weeks, clashes between individuals who support the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza and those who are distressed by its existence have deteriorated—creating a concerning public safety situation that cannot be allowed to continue. We must find a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of others that come from different backgrounds,” the mayor said.
Adding insult to injury, in February 2021 the mayor, by executive order, changed the holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The move upset large numbers of Italian Philadelphians who saw the change not only as an insult against Italians but an attack on Catholicism, since it was Columbus who brought Christianity to America. City Council member Mark Squilla called the name change a “personal affront” to Italian Americans.
A lawsuit was then filed by 50 Italian-American organizations alleging that the Philadelphia mayor’s executive orders regarding the Columbus Day name change discriminated against Italian-Americans “while exalting another ethnic group.”
The suit contends that Mayor Kenney had sowed racial division in the city when he made the name change by choosing which “ethnicities should be credited, supported, and approved and which should be shamed, disdained and canceled.”
The suit suggests that the mayor could have provided Indigenous People with their own holiday.
But a mayor who doesn’t know that he’s actually a racist himself would never be able to wrap his mind around that.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/poet and the author of fifteen books including Literary Philadelphia, Philadelphia Mansions and his most recent release, From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.
Previous Parts of the Series:
Part I: Chicago's Lori Lightfoot.
Part 2: LA's Eric Garcetti.
Part 3: DC's Muriel Bowser.
Part 4: KC's Quinton Lucas.
Part 5: SF's London Breed.