HelenGym's blog

Awful Campaign Ad files: Xenophobia and the PA Senate Race

I’ve read about them, but it’s only recently that I’ve actually seen the anti-Toomey attack ads on the few television shows I watch. And, you know, that xenophobia thing just isn't working for me.

This ad has a sister version featuring the sound of a broken fortune cookie while the narrator says, “Pat Toomey. He’s really not for you.”

Gongs AND fortune cookies! There's so much to go after in Pat Toomey. Sending jobs overseas isn't off-limits either - but parlaying in xenophobia offends as well as clouds the message.

These ads are apparently part of a national trend reported last month by the New York Times on the latest punching bag from both political parties: China.

With many Americans seized by anxiety about the country’s economic decline, candidates from both political parties have suddenly found a new villain to run against: China.

From the marquee battle between Senator Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina in California to the House contests in rural New York, Democrats and Republicans are blaming one another for allowing the export of jobs to its economic rival.

In the past week or so, at least 29 candidates have unveiled advertisements suggesting that their opponents have been too sympathetic to China and, as a result, Americans have suffered.

The ads are striking not only in their volume but also in their pointed language.

One ad for an Ohio congressman, Zack Space, accuses his Republican opponent, Bob Gibbs, of supporting free-trade policies that sent Ohioans’ jobs to China. As a giant dragon appears on the screen, the narrator sarcastically thanks the Republican: “As they say in China, xie xie Mr. Gibbs!”

According to the Times, the anti-China sentiments are bi-partisan, 19 from Dems (including PA’s Jason Altmire) and 10 from Republicans. But that doesn’t make them any less bizarre or alienating, especially from the Democratic end. For example, the ad referenced by the Times above from Congressman Space (D-OH) uses images of a San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration to strike terror in the hearts of all those fearful of, er, gongs, fortune cookies, lion dancers and foreign tongues. Because when you're dealing in stereotypes what's it matter whether it's Asian or Asian American?

So, while I may be voting tomorrow for Sestak, I’ll be doing so with somewhat less enthusiasm, and it will be based on Pat Toomey’s record and what I still hope are Congressman Sestak’s principles and beliefs about making Pennsylvania better. Because in a state where we’ve received national attention for anti-immigrant sentiments, adding another layer to that damaging echo chamber just isn’t what PA needs.

Understanding the Need for Culture and Community Celebrations

Photo: Joan May Cordova

I remember as a kid growing up in Ohio walking to the neighborhood July 4th parade every year. It seemed like our whole neighborhood was out, we wore goofy hats, watched the floats, waved the flag and had our annual tasting of water ice. Even though my sister and I complained at getting up so early to find a seat curbside, my parents were proud and determined to be part of a uniquely American celebration.

But there were other celebrations, of sorts, for our family which weren’t quite as clearly celebratory. Every year in the fall, my mom would stay up all night to make a particularly elaborate Korean dinner, we’d take out photos of her family and light candles and bow. My mom would call her family in Korea, and we’d hear her on the phone for hours laughing, but then she’d come out of her room in tears and there would just be my sister and me feeling awkward while my dad tried to comfort her. As a kid I never knew that this was one of the most important holidays in Korea – Chusok – when the whole nation shuts down and families go to visit one another.

In fact, I didn’t really know about Chusok until Asian Americans United began its own celebration at this time – the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival. Fifteen years ago, middle school-aged immigrant youth in our leadership program expressed concern about the loneliness their elders felt during Mid-Autumn time. They talked about the lack of public space in Chinatown, the lack of places for celebration for immigrant families who worked so hard that it became challenging to maintain family, much less community, connections. So in 1995 the youth put on their first festival – songs, skits, and stories – and 400 people showed up in a church parking lot.

Today, more than 5,000 people – along with 100 artists and performers and 130+ volunteers – gather along three blocks for a day-long celebration when a community – one that has always fought for its voice and place in Philadelphia – comes together to remember, honor, and celebrate. Mid-Autumn Festival is a time when children re-establish their roots, when families have a feeling of community, and our elders embrace memories and discover the power of passing down traditions.

It’s hard to measure the value of this festival. Sure there’s economic value, but how do you cost out the value of the photo above – when Sifu Cheung, who’s been teaching Hung Gar Kung Fu in Philadelphia Chinatown for over 30 years, talks to a young student about the role of the lion dance in community celebrations before she goes onstage to perform?

These days my whole family has become part of this tradition. My children look forward to Mid-Autumn when Chinatown becomes their personal playground and a place to watch everything from skilled New York Chinese Opera performers to high school dance teams to their favorite college acapella groups. And afterwards, we've created our own Chusok tradition with my parents and our family.

We know that for communities to be whole, we need places and times where people can linger, interact and engage with each other in meaningful ways. Festivals are times when the powerless become powerful – when families and community members take over the streets and when ordinary people have the chance to be part of art making and tradition making.

It’s a long way of saying thanks to City Council, particularly Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, and to the Philadelphia Cultural Traditions Fund, Congressman Bob Brady and the Lenfest Foundation, for recognizing and finding ways to preserve these sacred places for communities both big and small in our city.

Philadelphia Folklore Project, 735 S. 50th Street, is currently running a photo exhibit on the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival: “Under the Autumn Moon: Reclaiming Time and Space in Chinatown” through the fall. Read about the exhibit here. The 2010 Chintown Mid-Autumn Festival will be held Saturday, September 18th from 1-10 p.m. along 10th Street in Chinatown. The festival is free and open to the public.

South Philly High six months later: What still needs work

(Cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

In the past few weeks, the School District of Philadelphia has made a heavy media push to recast the story at South Philadelphia High School. From news articles to columns to letters to editorial board briefings, the District is pushing the story that the events of December 3 are long past and, in their typical refrain, it’s time to move on.

The latest push has been to use statistics. According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer story, the District claims that last school year there were 92 assaults total; this year 44. From January-May, there were 70 assaults reported; this year only 15.

It seems pretty astounding for the District to stake the claim that this school year has been a better and safer one than last year. Anyone who’s been watching the story knows that the District’s numbers have constantly shifted. For example, the District’s own website here shows that Southern had well over 100 assaults last school year, not 92.

YPP-South Philly0001

In the days following the December 3 attacks the District told media outlets that minor skirmishes had happened off campus and that violence was down at the school. They later corrected that statement to say that violence at the school had spiked 32% from September through November. The December 3 violence alone – in which at least 26 Asian students were beaten and 13 sent to the hospital – would account for more than half the incidents the District counts for the year -a claim that seems sketchy at best.

Corbett takes on Twitter; forgets his own obnoxious twitterers

Apparently, in his anger at Twitter, PA Atty. General Tom Corbett forgot about the First Amendment:

Tom Corbett , current Attorney General of the state of Pennsylvania and Gubernatorial Candidate , has subpoenaed Twitter to appear as a Grand Jury witness to “testify and give evidence regarding alleged violations of the laws of Pennsylvania”.

The subpoena orders Twitter to provide “any and all subscriber information” of the person(s) behind two accounts – @bfbarbie and @CasaBlancaPA – who have been anonymously criticizing the man on the popular micro-sharing service.

According to the subpoena (embedded below), the information that Twitter is ordered to provide includes “name, address, contact information, creation date, creation Internet Protocol address and any and all log in Internet Protocol address”.

What’s the fuss about? Apparently Corbett blew up over tweets describing him as someone who “sputters” and “erupts” and tweets making references to Bonusgate. Really Mr. Attorney General, you got mad over this? Have you read philly.com lately?

Meanwhile, Tom Corbett’s own twitter-sphere isn’t exactly a batch of kindly grandmothers. Take his twitter friend ElizRH whom he thanked in a tweet on April 14th. This is her recent chirp:

@soapboxmom Don't know about illegal immigrants, but I can spot a lesbian at around 10 yards... ;-) RE http://bit.ly/cZmZVb 9:22 AM May 12th via TweetDeck

Or this happy tweet from an upbeat lr3031 whom Corbett thanked on April 9th:

@ObamaRegime Piss off Mexico/Calderon criticizing Arizona Law on our land .Go to hell ,no wait your country is Hell : http://bit.ly/bH0KL9 about 14 hours ago via web

So, Mr. Corbett, some thoughts. The internet is a pretty uncontrolled medium. It allows for stultifyingly boring tweets from your own campaign twitterdom and pretty outrageous garbage from other people, including your own twitter friends. Being on the campaign trail is stressful enough without looking like an out-of-touch bully who can’t cope with the internet noise-o-sphere. And being Governor requires legal judgment and temperament better than this.

Oh, and don’t forget the best part about cyberworld: the more you take on the internet, the more it takes you on in return. Enjoy the comment stream.

Ahh, Daryl Metcalfe: How is it that you never let us down?

Ya know, if there’s anything more embarrassing than a lunatic AZ state law supporting fascist immigration policies and racial profiling, it’s gotta be the guy who tries to milk as much publicity as he can for the copycat version of it:

“The purpose of this legislation is to offer every illegal alien residing in Pennsylvania two options, leave immediately or go to jail. Whether you came to steal Pennsylvania jobs or to leech off of our state’s fraud-ridden, ‘close your eyes and verify’ welfare system, once this law is enacted there will be absolutely no economic incentives for you to remain here.”

Nice rhetoric for a legislator who’s based his career on fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment. This legislative season, six of his 13 sponsored or co-sponsored bills have focused on problematic approaches to immigration from e-verify to the current bill above which creates new criminal classes and demands that police ascertain citizenship status.

And as Seth Myers said it best on SNL, “Can we agree that there’s nothing more Nazi than 'show me your papers’?”

So typical Metcalfe lunacy aside, getting quality legislators in office is more important now than ever. And considering Metcalfe's special brand of lunacy, not having folks like him in the House majority is a great reason why all of us need to get to the polls in the primaries.

In the meantime, Philly’s chapter of Reform Immigration for America encourages interested people to join in a rally tomorrow at 10 a.m. outside Sen. Casey’s office, 2000 Market Street. Info below:

Please join us this Thursday, at 10 AM, as we rally at Sen. Casey’s office (2000 Market St) and demand that he protect Pennsylvania from wrongheaded policies by showing leadership in Congress to pass fair, humane, and practical comprehensive immigration reform this year.

The 10 AM rally at Sen. Casey’s office (2000 Market) will be followed by a march down Market Street to Love Park, where faith leaders will join with the Mayor’s National Day of Prayer event, to offer prayers on behalf of immigration reform. Bring posters, American flags, noisemakers, and as many people as possible with you -- together, we must send a strong message that we will not stand by and let our state follow in the footsteps of Arizona.

South Philadelphia High: The School District's alternate reality

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Lin De Liu, a 16 year old boy who enrolled at South Philadelphia High School post-December 3 and who was assaulted last month in a bathroom stall.

Today’s Inquirer story gives an update on Lin De’s condition:

The incident lasted only seconds, but for Liu, a 16-year-old immigrant from China, the consequences have been profound.

His vision frequently turns blurry, to where he can't count fingers held in front of his face. He forgets conversations that occurred moments earlier, and sometimes struggles to identify everyday objects, like the chicken on his dinner plate. He gets sudden nose bleeds. . .

Liu was examined at Chinatown Medical Services on March 25, where the doctor wrote he had blurred vision and should be seen at a hospital. The next day, Liu underwent a CT scan of the head. A week later, a sudden loss of vision sent him to the emergency room for a second CT scan. More tests are pending.

Liu worries that his condition is permanent - and that he could be hurt even worse at school.

"I have this great fear that someone will attack me again," he said.

The family has amassed thousands of dollars in medical bills but that pales in comparison to the family’s stress.

"I'm so upset," Liu's mother, Hui Qin Chen, said through a translator as she wiped tears from her eyes. "I don't know what to do."

The medical records and at least one eyewitness statement make clear what happened: a student and his friend kicked in a bathroom stall door that smacked Lin De’s head against the wall.

But for the School District an entirely different story has cropped up a month after the attack – and delivered only to the media. No one from the School District, for the record, has formally contacted the family to explain what they found, clarify discrepancies, or even reach out and help the family deal with their son’s injuries.

According to the District:

  1. The incident was apparently a "careless" accident, not an assault. Funny though that kicking in doors isn’t exactly a passive act, and an eyewitness’ account that the boys were cracking up at Lin De’s pain doesn’t exactly indicate insouciance. The District bases this assessment on apparently no investigation at all. I wrote earlier that I thought the District had security camera footage, but that is apparently not the case. They have no footage of what went on inside the bathroom. So how do they arrive that this is an accident? Dong Chen, the eyewitness never received a follow-up interview with the District. Clearly no one has contacted the family beyond the first visit with the school. So once again, a serious incident remains uninvestigated - to the District's benefit.
  2. Lin De’s mother was turned away from the school multiple times to try and speak to school officials, but the District claims it has no proof that she was actually there. Their proof? No footage shows her inside the building at one specific entrance. Oh and plus no one fessed up to turning her away. They recommended via the Inquirer that she specifically identify the person who turned her away – even though no one’s reached out to her to ask.
  3. In an equally bizarre turn of events, the school informed Lin De’s family that the student who had committed the assault had been suspended and transferred, but the District denied that and said the family and a community advocate had “misunderstood.” That student had only voluntarily transferred out of the system.
  4. And finally, although community advocates have counted a number of incidents of harassment at the school, the School District can only come up with one – the one in the paper.

Since December 3, the District has created an alternate universe of reality in which real pain and suffering of Asian immigrant youth at the school doesn’t exist, conversations are misunderstood, and people like Lin De’s mom just make stuff up. It happens through official inquiries like the $100,000 District investigation, and it continues today despite the appalling stress and suffering of Lin De’s family. It’s an alternate reality in which the District is accountable for nothing, and an alternate reality where basic human compassion is lacking. It’s also an alternate reality where racial violence has continued an unrelenting path.

A few weeks ago a District official contacted me and suggested that I keep the District “in the loop” before publishing incidents like Lin De’s on the Notebook’s website. If Lin De’s injuries are so callously disregarded, what will it take for the District to recognize there’s a problem?

At this point, I don’t even want to contemplate the answer.

How much is a buck worth? Why a District land deal needs more scrutiny

(UPDATE: A District land deal I wrote about Monday was not only fast-tracked, but never received public review before being brought to a vote. Cross-posted at the Public School Notebook.)

When is a dollar not worth a dollar? Take a look at last week’s media stories (Daily News and Inquirer), which blew open a District land transfer deal for a politically connected development group. The story raises serious questions not only about the SRC’s secretive decisionmaking process, but also the wheeling and dealing behind the District’s new land management policy and its enormous – and almost entirely unscrutinized – capital budget.

And as the SRC votes today on the sale of six more properties, public concern and oversight is more necessary than ever.

The background
The children from Duckrey Elementary School in North Philly practice band and play basketball on a sweet piece of land behind their school. Teachers had plans to grow a garden and beautify the space; the school’s principal hoped for a playground for the school’s 380-some children. However, others had their own plans – namely the board of a nonprofit development company called NewCourtland. Form 990s filed by NewCourtland show State Rep. Dwight Evans and School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie are among its former board members. NewCourtland is also represented by Archie's firm, Duane Morris.

Last September, the Mayor’s chief of staff, Clarence Armbrister, penned a letter to District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the School Reform Commission requesting the land behind Duckrey for a NewCourtland housing project. Although most land deals take quite a bit of time, the District was able to fast-track this request in a matter of weeks in order to put it up for a vote on October 21 under the heading "Resolution #A-21: Authorization to Declare Lands at Tanner Duckery Unused and Unnecessary/Convey to the City of Philadelphia." The resolution categorized the Duckrey School land as “unused” and “unnecessary” and authorized transfer of the land to the City of Philadelphia in exchange for the same amount that the city sold the land for.

Left unmentioned during the October vote was the fact that the City intended to turn over the land to NewCourtland for one dollar. Or the fact that Commissioner Archie had been a former board member (this wasn't disclosed until complaints about the deal surfaced in February). Or that Armbrister had made the request, despite the fact that his wife Denise sits on the School Reform Commission. Archie recused himself from the vote - since his law firm represented NewCourtland, but Denise Armbrister did not. Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky also abstained from the vote for unclear reasons.

Special treatment for NewCourtland
The specifics of this process are particularly questionable because the District clearly broke with established practices. In June 2009 the District passed a new land management policy which laid out a set of guidelines for land use, purchase, and sale. Key elements of the policy are getting "fair market value," alerting the public, and soliciting bids. None of this happened with NewCourtland. In fact, the District gave no advance notice of the NewCourtland vote. Resolution A21 was a "walk-on" resolution, meaning it wasn't on the SRC docket the previous week for publication and discussion. Instead, it went straight to vote.

What's really going on?
Although the deal ultimately fell through – the land has allegedly returned to District control after HUD declined to fund the NewCourtland project – major issues remain.

  1. Where’s the scrutiny of the District’s $2.3 billion dollar capital budget which takes a look at building and construction as well as land use and ownership? To its credit, the District puts out copious information on the operating budget, which is also subjected to public hearings. But the public knows far too little about the complicated capital budget. Of greater concern is the lack of scrutiny of the complex web of relationships - personal, political, financial and professional - surrounding capital projects.
  2. The District's new land management policy raises lots of concerns (which I hope to go into in a future post). But the major question is: what is the dialogue around the use of public land? With hundreds of schools and various properties, the District is a huge landowner. Yet it has failed to articulate a framework and understanding of its current land uses and needs, as well as its future goals for development. A piecemeal sales approach with the only consideration being an apparently subjective interpretation of "fair market value" leaves out a responsible understanding of how precious public land needs to be put to use for the public benefit.
  3. Where’s the public accountability for the School Reform Commission’s decisionmaking process? Under Chair Robert Archie, the SRC rarely meets with the public beyond its regular sessions and does little to make itself available to the media. SRC commissioners have gotten better at asking questions in public – in particular Commissioner Johnny Irizarry – but none show any indication that the public sessions are where they get their primary information or have substantive debate and discussion.

Monday musings: School District shenanigans, new study shows gamblings' benefits are few, and more on S. Philly High

Stuff I’ve been meaning to get to:

  • School District shenanigans: Oh the ability of an impoverished school district to surprise us with its use of money. Whether it was the Notebook breaking the story about the District creating a $180,000 job position for a former Edison Schools president or Valerie Russ at the Daily News jumping on the questionable dealings around a land transfer for a politically connected senior citizen home (more on this below), it’s clear that few people are minding the store over at School District HQ. The $180,000 title for former Edison School President Leroy Nunery – who was once a finalist for School District CEO – even sounds extraneous: chief of institutional advancement and strategic partnerships. Nunery will make more than the mayor and will expand a central office whose new and varied “positions” and salaries put the Vallas era to shame.
  • New Courtland and the $1 transfer: So here’s the deal. Kids from Duckrey Elementary School in North Philly practice band and play basketball on this sweet piece of land behind their school. Teachers hope to grow a garden there; the principal hoped for a rare school playground for the children. But others had their own plans – namely the board of New Courtland, a politically connected development company (former board members include SRC Commissioner Robert Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans). Nutter Chief of Staff Clay Armbrister wrote a letter to the School Reform Commission last September requesting the land for a senior housing project. A deal is struck that the District – whose Superintendent in January had reminded everyone that this is a "distressed school district. We’re losing money and cutting programs" – will transfer the land to the City of Philadelphia who will then turn it over to New Courtland for a dollar. And everything was going fine until some community activists started asking questions. Read more about it here and here. Latest update here.(This section has been corrected)
  • New study on PA shows casinos don’t necessarily benefit communities – and the only press who reports this is . . . Atlantic City!: So the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia does an economic and jobs study on PA casinos and finds that, surprise!, the whole economic revitalization and jobs myth, is well, still largely a myth. Like other studies – most recently in Connecticut – the Fed found that state coffers were enrichened while local municipalities dealt with the fallout of bankruptcy, crime, and lost opportunities. In addition, casino jobs – often touted to a desperate population – don’t always benefit the host communities. From last week’s Press of Atlantic City:

    Mallach said that for many Pennsylvania communities hosting casinos, it is impossible to tell yet whether the local benefits will outweigh the costs.

    The key factors, he said, are how many casino jobs go to local people and how many casino patrons come from other areas. In a sign that some of those jobs are going elsewhere, Harrah's Chester (Pa.) Casino & Racetrack this month is holding job fairs in Atlantic City and Delaware.

    Even then, there can be inadvertent costs. Speaking of Philadelphia casinos, he said, "It is possible that although resulting in some increase in the aggregate number of jobs in the local area, the effect of the casinos will be to reduce the average wage for city residents."

  • More on South Philly High: This time via a study of what happened at a Bensonhurst high school – dubbed “Horror High” – where the District ignored repeated violence against Asian students. In that case, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund successfully got the U.S. Dept. of Justice to file a lawsuit against that school district. The similarities are striking – in particular the willful indifference of both Districts to even acknowledge the issue, much less do something about it. The piece is also interesting because it’s the first time that I’ve seen the Inky use a nonprofit education outlet to report the story.

"A high moral enterprise": Philadelphian Ed Nakawatase reflects on SNCC and 50 years of progress

Ed Nakawatase at SNCC office, Atlanta, GA, 1963. (Photo: Tamio Wakayama)

It’s not often we have a chance to celebrate the amazing lives of extraordinary Philadelphians, but the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was just too good of an opportunity not to let folks know about Philly’s own Ed Nakawatase.

This week hundreds of SNCC members from all over the country are gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina, to honor one of the pillar organizations of the civil rights movement. Ed will be making the journey with them, likely the only surviving Asian American member of the group.

Ed, a third generation Japanese American, was born in an internment camp in Poston, AZ, and grew up in Seabrook, New Jersey, the son of plant workers at Seabrook Farms. In 1963 at age 20, Ed dropped out of college and headed to Atlanta as a SNCC staff member in what he described as a "high moral enterprise."

"It was 1963. There was the march on Washington, and there were demonstrations happening all over the country protesting racial discrimination. It was moving and terribly exciting," Ed told me this weekend. "It just seemed beside the point to stay in college."

Ed worked as an intake person in the Atlanta office with SNCC luminaries like John Lewis and Julian Bond. That’s a photo of Ed above working at his desk. It was a basic job such as it was, taking calls and logging reports. That hardly mattered. As he put it, he wanted to locate himself at a "transcendent moment of history."

"If I was anything, I was incredibly lucky – lucky that at a very young age I was witness to one of the greatest social struggles in our nation's history at the pinnacle of its power and moral force."

More violence and failure at South Philadelphia High School: What hasn't changed at all

It's been almost four months since the Dec. 3 violence at South Philadelphia High School. How are things going?

Two weeks ago, a recent immigrant Chinese student testified at the School Reform Commission about ongoing violence at the school. He and his brother had arrived at Southern post-Dec. 3, and heard about the violence on their very first day. Earlier this month, two students at the school kicked a bathroom door into his brother's face as he was coming out of the bathroom, cracking his head against the wall. The boy’s parents received an urgent call from their son inside the school, but were turned away by school security while they struggled to explain why they were there.

Following the testimony at the SRC the parents got a call from the school to return. Although they were at the school for more than two hours, the parents never once saw South Philly High Principal LaGreta Brown, who was in the building, nor did they get a follow-up call about their son from anyone at the school.

So this boy travels thousands of miles to go to school at South Philly and hears about anti-Asian violence on his very first day. But no one at the school ever bothered to orientate the boy or his family toward any policies for new immigrant students; no one ever discussed a safety plan in case of harassment or introduced the boy and his family to concerned personnel at the school who could address any concerns the boy or his family had. For this family, no new lessons were learned from December 3. Instead, the boy becomes yet another on-going stat in the litany of continued negligence of school and District officials at South Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the tragic suicide of a young Irish immigrant girl in Massachusetts earlier this year has school and local officials across the country rethinking their responsibilities around bullying and harassment.

The District's South Philly High story unravels


It’s hard to imagine that a story that first comes to public light exposing a day-long series of attacks against dozens of Asian immigrant kids can get any worse with time. But indeed, somehow the story about anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School keeps getting more and more outrageous as a relentless pattern of school and District misrepresentation becomes more apparent.

In riveting testimony earlier this week at the School Reform Commission, the grandmother of one of the Asian student victims wept as she described the calculated efforts of school personnel who had scapegoated and unjustly forced out her grandson following a brutal assault upon him December 2.

Her grandson was harassed in school then severely beaten outside of school the day before the December 3 attacks at South Philadelphia High School. The school never investigated the incident yet somehow punished the student, arguing first that the student had attacked a “disabled” African American student thereby triggering the December 3 violence. When that story unraveled he was then cast as a gang member by school officials as part of their new narrative that December 3 was located in gang violence and a broader pandemic of violence throughout the city.

He was one of the students suspended then transferred out of South Philly High as part of the story that December 3 was a “multiracial assault” “reminiscent of street gang conflict.” It was a story that made it to highest levels of the School District and referenced by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and an official District investigation.

Who therefore evades scrutiny? Anyone at the school or District despite the fact that community advocates had documented for more than a year a dozen meetings about on-going anti-Asian violence at Southern and pleas that went unheeded by school and District officials.

As Isaiah Thompson points out here in this week’s cover story at the City Paper:

Though never mentioned by name, this student, who speaks little English, became part of a convenient narrative for a District that wanted to paint these events as being less about the long-standing victimization of a targeted ethnic minority than the result of a feud gone haywire. After all, with the latter explanation, school officials couldn't be blamed for ignoring the powder keg that was about to blow.

In the process, a young boy became the central focus of a relentless campaign by the District who first painted him as a troublemaker then a gang member in order to fit their narrative. Not only did the District fail in its due process (failures in communication, lack of translation) they also accused him of participating in an attack the previous year – even though he was living in another state.

It’s belated gratification to note that District officials are today announcing steps to clear the boy's name. It took a family that wouldn’t accept the abuse, a hard hitting cover in the City Paper, weeks of front page stories at the Inquirer and other media coverage to make happen what three months of meetings could not.

But it’s an indication to what lengths the school and District have gone in order to avoid assumption of responsibility for the violence at South Philadelphia High. Since Dec. 3, the District and school have engaged in a deliberate pattern of behavior to misrepresent what's been happening at South Philadelphia High School and who's been responsible. It’s why Asian community advocates have not been able to “move forward” as Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has declared we ought to.

Consider the testimony of the numerous youth and advocates who testified yesterday about why the District’s actions post-December 3 have been as just as shocking and shameful as what happened on that day.

  • Failing to acknowledge that the attacks reflected anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence: "The students who were attacked on December 3 were targeted because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the accents in their voices. Period. . . Rather than rush to the scene and decry racial violence, express concern for the victims, and commit to combatting bias, the District response has been to distort and minimize - dismiss, deny, and obscure the scale and nature of these attacks." - Ellen Somekawa, Asian Americans United
  • Not listening to students: Tram Nguyen of Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia said one of the key elements to crisis response is to provide "ventilation and validation" to victims, but testified that there were "repeated obstacles put in place to make it almost impossible for the students to share their stories. When they were allowed to talk they were also told how much their story was hurting other students at the school."
  • Failing to act against staff who behaved inappropriately: Student after student detailed failures of school staff from security personnel who ordered students out of the building, to a principal who escorted students into a dangerous situation to a school nurse who didn't want to call an ambulance. Student Dong Chen said: "We can identify those who ordered us to leave" but students weren't asked about the failures of adults.

You can read more student perspectives here.

While the violence at South Philly made the headlines on Dec. 3, the real story has been in the appalling way the District has handled the situation since. Unfolding before us is how localized violence becomes institutionalized: the silence of the District around racial and ethnic hate, the retaliation against specific students, and the denial of student voices.

When the District remains silent about racism and racially motivated violence, then it is telling us to do the same by default. To move on. To bury the voices of the hurt, the fearful, the silenced, the victimized. The line between the message of “move on” and “get over it” to “get used to it” has become indiscernible.

Note to South Philly principal LaGreta Brown: It's called a METAPHOR

LaGreta Brown made her first public appearance before the SRC since the violence at South Philadelphia HS, joining ten other individuals to denounce, er, a cartoon.

The cartoon by Tony Auth showed a woman inside the principal’s office at her desk with her head down, phone off the hook, and a shattered window next to her.

Brown said it was an unfair characterization. "I'm rarely at my desk during the day," she said. "Most days, I'm located in the halls and in the classrooms. How dare anyone portray me as sleeping . . .

"I'm not tired. I'm not clueless. I'm not knocked out," she continued. "I come to serve and I'm not going anywhere."

Meanwhile, the SRC continued with the extreme literal interpretation and disregarded the entreaties of its Superintendent Arlene Ackerman who had appealed publicly to "let it go" around South Philadelphia High School. Chairman Robert Archie said the SRC - which has made no public statement on the violence at South Philadelphia High School in the past three months - said it would confer about whether to issue its own condemnation of, er, a cartoon - supposedly on the basis that Ms. Brown was actually awake and cognizant throughout the chaos of the school day.

Once again, Ms. Brown escorted about 20 "student ambassadors" from the school to accompany her. None of the Asian immigrant students who had boycotted the school were invited.

Gambling's real winners and losers

On Sunday, Monica Yant Kinney wrote a shocking story about the locals who make Bucks County's Parx Casino so "profitable." According to Parx, most of their clients live within a 20 mile radius of Street Road and come 3-4 times a week, losing $25-$30 a trip.

Today we get to meet one of Parx's regulars: a former construction worker who was sidelined due to injury but now has found his new profession as a casino player.

Anderson lives five minutes from the Bensalem slots box, which raked in $400 million in profit last year in a recession. Proximity, plus free valet parking, has turned the unemployed cement mason into a casino operator's dream.

Anderson, 31, pops in for 90 minutes here, three hours there. He plays to relax and to kill time when his kids are in school. He plays late at night when he can't sleep or at dawn while his wife dozes.

Anderson views playing the slots as a profession, a flextime job he can do in sweats while smoking.

"I treat it like a business," he tells me after we meet at the casino. "If this is what I have to do to make money, this is what I have to do."

Problem is that Anderson doesn't realize Steve Wynn's favorite quote: The only way to beat the house is to be the house.

Things that make me want to go . . . . UGH

  1. Today’s front page Inquirer story on the chaos at South Philly High School on Dec. 3: The chaos and trauma that gripped South Philly High is front and center - as is the leadership of SPHS principal LaGreta Brown. From before 9 a.m. and continuing throughout the school day, Brown knew of multiple attacks on Asian immigrant students and a school in crisis and largely failed to act.

    What the story missed: The day after the violence on Dec. 3rd, the Principal sent home a letter to parents that began: "As you may have heard in the news, an incident occurred at dismissal, outside of South Philadelphia High School on Thursday, December 3, 2009." The letter not only brings into question the principal's judgement that day but in the days following when Brown engaged in questionable conduct as public scrutiny increased. LaGreta Brown may have entered a challenging situation at SPHS when she arrived, but her lack of leadership, action and subsequent acceptance of responsibility has resulted in a challenging school becoming a dangerous and fractious place for all students there - Asian immigrant students in particular - and a national embarassment for the School District.

  2. Where’s the apology?: The claim that Asian students attacked a disabled African American child was an explosive allegation first uttered by Supt. Arlene Ackerman in her first remarks on the S. Philly incident almost a week after the attacks:

    "What began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African American student, quickly escalated into a retaliatory multi-racial attack on primarily Chinese students at the school the following day." (School Reform Commission hearing, Dec. 9, 2009)

    This allegation generated confusion, heightened racial tension, and fueled suspicion citywide. And it was completely unsubstantiated, according to a recent District investigation. In fact, the report raised the likelihood that there’s a totally different version of events than the one Dr. Ackerman put out – that it was in fact Asian immigrant kids who were beaten. It would seem imperative to call for a response from the superintendent who uttered the accusation in the first place. Thus far, Dr.Ackerman has taken a convenient "case closed, move forward" approach. It’s convenient because it doesn’t accept her role in fanning the flames and heightening confusion and suspicion through hearsay and rumor rather than encouraging a thorough inquiry into what led up to the attacks.

    The high road would be to apologize. Instead, there is a deafening silence.

  3. Predatory gambling and the call to revoke Foxwoods license: Today Buzz Bissinger joined the call to revoke Foxwoods’ license. The problem is that while fed-up with the mess, the author, like others, simply says rebid the license at another location to foist the miserable process and even more miserable outcome on other neighborhoods – missing the point that it’s the larger city that suffers.

    Just read Monica Yant Kinney’s column today on the gambling at Parx casino:

    Inside the smoke-filled slots box, much of what casino bosses took for granted has changed. Gone are the days of wooing "whales" and dissing grannies in fanny packs. Parx president Dave Jonas says his revenue comes almost exclusively from local low rollers.

    "We underestimated significantly how many trips our customers were going to make," Jonas said at last month's Pennsylvania Gaming Congress in Valley Forge.

    "When I was in Atlantic City, to have 12 to 15 trips out of customers, they were VIPs," Jonas said. At Parx, "it's not uncommon for us to have 150 to 200 trips."

    Moderator Michael Pollock, a well-regarded casino analyst, paused to digest the statistic.

    "You said 150 to 200 times a year," he repeated. "That's three to four times a week, essentially."

    "Yes," Jonas confirmed, most of his players fit that profile. In fact, because Parx players tend to live within 20 miles of Street Road, many go even more frequently.

    "We have customers," Jonas boasted, "who give us $25, $30 five times a week."

    Is there any question that localized gambling is anything less than predatory? The message around Foxwoods is not to revoke the license so we can surround Philadelphia with yet another of these bottom feeding industries. The message is to revoke the license period and rethink gambling in this city and the Commonwealth. Anything less is just playing power politics rather than protecting the real needs of communities and people throughout our region.

  4. Steve Wynn: There’s no doubt that the Foxwoods fiasco continues on its downhill slide with Steve Wynn angling to gain his way in. As anti-Philadelphia as he is, Wynn is correct on this end – with predatory gambling we have struck a pact with the "dark side" so to speak – a dark side that’s on full display below (thanks to Roxbury News). And as long as city leaders keep that pact, they’ll reap what they sow.

    Steve Wynn Reveals Shocking Ignorance from Ron Stanford on Vimeo.

And not to be a complete sourpuss, I have to say it’s pretty darn cool that Vincent Chin – whose murder politicized a generation of Asian American activists around anti-Asian violence – made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Another missed opportunity: quick thoughts on the Mayor's budget address

Yesterday I joined Coalition of Essential Services in attending the Mayor’s budget address. Quick thoughts (and not in any way speaking for CES who I hope posts here):

On the upside, Mayor Nutter acknowledged the work of many Philadelphians, including Coalition of Essential Services, saying that for those fighting to preserve core services for the most vulnerable of Philadelphians, “we heard you then and we hear you now.”

“We can’t cut our way out of this deficit . . . it is a path we must avoid.”

He said that the budget largely preserved core services, restored pools and re-emphasized that not a single library, rec center or health clinic would close. He talked about hunger and the “pain” of everyday Philadelphians struggling. He highlighted the work of his administration, and I was particularly impressed with L&I’s work on reducing response time. And I was impressed that he apologized for past mistakes:

“I ask for your forgiveness for my mistakes. I am trying hard each and everyday . . . “

On the downside:

  • The Mayor promised not only that he wouldn’t cut services, but that he wouldn’t raise taxes so . . . I guess that gets us what we largely got in this budget, keeping things mostly the same for the wealthiest and the poorest and squeaking in on a few taxes.
  • The trash tax: regressive and a missed opportunity. Basically it’s $300 or $200 per household depending on your income with some possibility for other unclear arrangements. We’ll get a notice in the mail for a separate bill (rather than have it worked into say a property tax), we have 60 days to pay and then interest will accrue? Rrrright. Second, it’s a missed opportunity because it doesn’t even have a message about curtailing trash consumption. A pay–as-you-go program – which I am familiar with – at least would distinguish between a frat house that holds weekly keg parties from a single senior on a fixed income (read more at Its Our Money)
  • No mention of education at all other than a brief reference at the beginning that we have an education system where too many fall through the cracks. He spoke about literacy (but mostly adult literacy) and truancy. Maybe in a state-run system this is where we are, but the Mayor in the past has always made sure that public schools were front and center for everyone. It’s a shame to see education and our public schools fall off the radar even in a budget address (or from my viewpoint, especially in a budget address).

In the end, I was underwhelmed rather than angered or fired up. Partly because I think the Mayor started off with aspirations, with acknowledgement about the role and need of good government for people in the worst of economic times. He had a much more human and compassionate projection than we’ve seen in a long time. And he has said repeatedly that we are in the worst of economic crises.

So, given all of that . . . this is it? Soda and trash taxes and everything else largely the same hanging on by the skin of our teeth? I mean why not a latte tax? Seems all rather arbitrary and tip-toeing to not offend entrenched interests.

What sort of leadership message is here? In Ken Burns’ awesome National Parks documentary, the historian reminds us that in the midst of the Great Depression, the U.S. invested in parks and in the process created one of the most important national treasures and remade and expanded on our notion of democracy. He reminded us that looking back on crisis can be a recognition of opportunity and investment, not in the usual exploitive way as Naomi Klein has documented in the Shock Doctrine, but in the best of ways from "our better angels" as Mayor Nutter said.

I am grateful that the Mayor acknowledges the importance of core services and largely avoided cuts, but without a stronger message on cleaning up city government, tackling tax abatements and the property tax mess, and addressing a share the pain message with our largest businesses, we're just tiding ourselves over while a whole lot of stuff is devolving through passive inaction.

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