Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Perspective, Please

Once Mayor Michael Nutter wrote a letter to the Human Relations Commission in Philadelphia suggesting a "rebuke" for the Philly Magazine article "Being White in Philly," a panel discussion was almost inevitable.  One was held Monday night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Details of the event are fairly light, which is a pity, given that the piece by the magazine's Robert Huber exposed, or threatened to expose, urban problems which are particularly acute in Philadelphia.

Today we read in the Philadelphia Inquirer of an individual, allegedly robbed by a homeless man named Robert Bangura.   The apparent victim has accused Public Defender Frederick Lowenberg of calling him to urge him not to appear in Court.  Bangura

has been accused of doing that type of thing before. In 2006, he allegedly snatched $40 from a man near Fourth and Christian Street. In 2008, he was charged with taking $40 from a man at gunpoint on South Street.

Those cases, like many cases in Philadelphia, fell apart when witnesses failed to appear. Bangura was represented by public defenders, but not Lowenberg, in those cases.

Victims of crime, and witnesses to crime, have routinely been avoiding the courts in the city for quite a while.  In June 2012, the Inquirer reported

In a four-part series published in December 2009, The Inquirer reported that the Philadelphia criminal justice system was in crisis, plagued by rampant witness intimidation, a massive fugitive problem, some of the nation's lowest conviction rates for violent crimes, and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year without a ruling on the merits.

A special advisory committee convened in response has concluded that the paper's series had "galvanized a vigorous response from the stakeholders in Philadelphia's criminal justice system" in response to the report of "real defects," but "that the system would need to greatly improve its performance in order to regain the public's confidence."

But now that Robert Huber has written of race, crime, and fear in the neighborhoods of the city, Mayor Michael Nutter has asked the Human Relations Commission to investigate whether "Philly Magazine and Bob Huber are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia's racial relations possibly caused by the essay's unsubstantiated assertions."

Nutter's reprehensible response not only signaled an effort to disregard the terror which blocks crime victims and witnesses of all ethnic groups from assisting the city in prosecution of the violent crime more prevalent there than in most comparable cities.  It represents a lost opportunity for the Democratic Mayor.  Yesterday, the Inquirer published an article, based on a 2009-2011 estimate of the U.S. Census American Community Survey, which was deeply disturbing- not only for the adversity it found but also because the Mayor has chosen not to tie its findings to the concerns expressed by Huber's interviewees.  Alfred Lubrano wrote

Philadelphia has 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.

The annual salary for a single person at half the poverty line is around $5,700; for a family of four, it's around $11,700.

Philadelphia's deep-poverty rate is 12.9 percent, or around 200,000 people.

But that "wasn't a complete surprise for antipoverty advocates," Lubrano notes, because "the city already has the highest poverty rate- 28.4 percent- of any of America's biggest cities."

There is a nexus between poverty and crime.  For those too young to know, or perhaps those too old to remember: there was a time in this nation that public officials acknowledged problems and pointed out the causes.

Not so Mayor Nutter.  It is hardly surprising that crime, and fear of it, are greater in the city than in surrounding areas, in which there is only 3.6% living in "deep poverty."  One would have hoped the Mayor, instead of attacking Huber, would have used the latter's article as a chance to explain that Philadelphia has far more serious problems than have suburban areas.

Those include (among others) poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, broken families, and a banking class which seized upon the poor and working class as an opportunity to make gobs of money, ultimately bringing the nation to its financial knees. Those factors were, unfortunately, missing from Nutter's letter to the Commission, in which he took a "hear no evil, see no evil" approach.

But give the Mayor credit: at least he hasn't accused the Survey, the bearer of bad news, of being "prejudiced, fact-challenged" and "ill-informed."

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