“After Trayvon”: Mayor Nutter’s Perplexing Essay for Time

The gap between Mayor Nutter's words and the reality of life in Philadelphia is too wide to bridge.

Mayor Nutter is a bit of an odd duck. He’s had a growing national profile ever since he took office here, and he’s never brought shame to the city the way certain predecessors did — no FBI bugs in his office, thank you very much. But there’s often a disconnect between his moments in the national spotlight and the reality of life in the Philadelphia he ostensibly leads.

Until now, that disconnect was most prominent at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, where Nutter gave the nation a speech tearing down Mitt Romney’s ideas about education — even as the school district here, never a model in the best of times, stood at the precipice of utter ruin. It was a bizarre moment.

And now we have Trayvon Martin.

After George Zimmerman was found not guilty of charges stemming from Martin’s shooting death, Nutter was asked to weigh in with an essay on the pages of Time magazine. He responded with … a screed against black-on-black violence. (You may notice that the Zimmerman trial wasn’t really about such incidents, but whatever.) It’s an epidemic, he says, that is “rarely part of any national conversation.”

“(Thirty-two) Americans are killed by gun violence every day, on average, a disproportionate number of whom are black men. That’s apparently not breaking news,” Nutter wrote. “With each death, the networks aren’t interrupting game shows or soap operas to give you that information. We get lulled back into complacency and somehow live with the fact that we have a Newtown every day in America. And a disproportionate number of those dying are black men.”

Now, Nutter’s assertion here is questionable. There’s nothing more the media — egged on by conservatives — love to talk about than how we’re not talking about the epidemic of black-on-black violence. (A Google News search of that phrase on Sunday turned up 152,000 results, all from the last few weeks.) They especially love to push the topic when a black man has been killed by a white man. It’s a way of changing the subject, and Nutter is going along with it.

You could argue that it’s a worthy changing of the subject. But Nutter’s own history somewhat belies his tone on the issue. There have been just a few times during his mayoral term that Nutter has drawn attention to himself on the issue of crime in Philadelphia. One was last year’s infamous “idiots and assholes” moment, an expression of anger that came after three teens were killed in a single incident — not Newtonian in its magnitude, no, but it’s notable that it took a high body count to provoke the mayor’s wrath.

The other big moment? That was a year earlier when Mayor Nutter took to the pulpit of Mount Carmel Baptist Church to admonish African-American parents for how poorly they were raising their young black kids:

Parents, get your act together. Get it together. Get it together right now. You need to get hold of your kids before we have to. Parents who neglect their children, who don’t know where they are, who don’t know what they’re doing, who don’t know who they’re hanging out with: You’re gonna find yourselves spending some quality time with your kids, in jail, together.

The precipitating incident for that speech? A series of Center City “flash mob” incidents in which African-American teens had terrorized and even injured some (mostly) white folks. Those were scary incidents that needed a response, to be sure, but it prompted the mayor to a more vocal and passionate response than we’d ever seen from him, up to that point, despite the daily violence in this city.

Policy-wise, perhaps, Nutter’s response has been more direct: Philadelphia Police under his administration have been vigorous practitioners of “stop and frisk,” a practice whereby mostly African-American men are stopped on the streets and searched for weapons and other contraband. (They’re also mostly innocent; a quarter of a million stops resulted in charges just over 8 percent of the time.) This policy has mostly been effective in humiliating and alienating upstanding community citizens like Mark Lamont Hill, the local columnist and professor. The murder rate itself has roller-coastered up and down despite those efforts

In other words, Nutter effectively runs Philadelphia with much the same understanding that apparently informed George Zimmerman as he left his car to follow Trayvon Martin that night in February 2012 — black men are generally assumed to be violent criminals until proven otherwise.

“For those who complain about it, I wish their complaints were even more vociferous that more than 85 percent of homicides in Philadelphia use a handgun, that more than 80 percent of victims are black, that 90 percent of those victims are black men,” he said during his re-election campaign.

The odd part of this is that Nutter is right: Black on black violence really is a horrific ongoing tragedy for this community. He’s also right, in the Time essay, when he says that communities could probably reduce violence if they had more jobs, more opportunities and offered better education. And he’s right when he says it’s time to stop talking and start taking action.

There’s nothing wrong with Nutter’s words, at all. It’s just that they’re perplexing when you examine what Philadelphia actually looks like under his administration. If it’s time to stop talking and start taking action, well, why hasn’t he?