Milton Street Finally Brought Porn to City Hall Yesterday — and It Was the Right Call

Actually seeing the misogynistic, racist and homophobic emails that were traded by state employees makes the point more forcefully than women pontificating behind a podium.

Yesterday the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women gathered at City Hall with several City Councilwomen to demand that District Attorney Seth Williams fire three of his employees: Frank Fina, Pat Blessington and Marc Constanzo. The three men, now prosecutors for the City of Philadelphia, were all involved in Porngate, the snappy name for the scandal that erupted after the discovery of a glut of pornographic, misogynistic, racist and homophobic emails written and distributed on state computers.

In reviewing the conduct of his employees, Williams has said that he will not fire them; rather, he’ll have them go through sensitivity training. The members of NOW and the five City Councilwomen feel this is not enough. The question, if you boil it down, is whether these men can perform their jobs responsibly, fairly and effectively — including prosecuting sex crimes — given the attitudes reflected in the emails. Williams says yes; NOW and the Councilwomen say no.

Yesterday one woman after another stood behind a podium to talk about the old boys network, the lack of judgment, and why women need to be respected. There was a lot of back-patting: I’d like to thank Cindy for this, I’d like to thank NOW for that, etc. Despite all the words, not much was said. One TV cameraman starting packing up to go even while one of the women was still talking. It was an earnest presentation, but it lacked impact. For a discussion of porn, it was really quite boring.

I don’t say that to be flip. I say that as a former hell-raising activist who spent many hours in meetings about the most effective tactics for making change. Standing behind a podium and talking in generalities was never on the list. 

Milton Street may have done it right. (I’ve never started a sentence with those words. It’s a funny feeling.) He printed out and distributed copies of a couple of the emails with quotes from Fina (as he’s been threatening to do). In some ways, it was classic Milton: distributing porn at City Hall! Outrageous! But it wasn’t a ridiculous impulse: Seeing something is different than hearing it described. When you actually look at the images, it is shocking in a way that talking about it isn’t. Not from a nudity or sex perspective — it’s 2015, after all — but because of the way the emails are contextualized. They’re not only “check out these jugs”-type notes your stupid little brother might send from his dorm room (though there are plenty of those). They’re suffused with disdain for women, who are portrayed as tools for male satisfaction rather than as people — especially if they’re secretaries.

Here’s just one example. Frank Fina sent an email to a colleague titled “Need motivation for the weekend?” Attached were images of mock motivational posters, several of which have photos of women giving blowjobs to men. The captions: “WILLINGNESS: Bend over backwards to do an exceptional job,” “DEVOTION: Making your boss happy is your only job,” “PERFORMANCE: Monthly performance evaluations are mandatory for all secretarial staff.” One of the posters has nothing to do with women: It shows two African-American men trying to wrestle a bucket of KFC chicken from the hands of a white man. The caption? “BRAVERY at its finest.”

Fina has complained, in a lawsuit filed yesterday, that he has been unfairly targeted by the media regarding the emails. He suggested other colleagues were just as bad or even worse, which is basically a 12-year-old’s “everyone else was doing it” defense. Still, he’s not wrong. Many others were involved, and perhaps there are even shades of gray. Pat Blessington, for instance, only received emails — he never replied to them or forwarded them. And in several instances, it should be noted, Fina was only a recipient of some of the most questionable emails, like the one of a big-breasted, presumably underaged girl wearing a T-shirt that says, “Admit It, You’d Go to Jail for This.” Receiving an email doesn’t mean you endorse its content. Yet looking at the evidence overall, it does seem as though Fina, at least, was an engaged participant in a disturbing email culture. In fact, one colleague responds to his motivational posters email with, “You are on a roll today, my man,” which suggests a pattern of behavior — not just on that day, but in general.

In a lengthy statement released by Seth Williams when he announced his decision to keep the three men on staff, he said, ”We found that none of the e-mails in question were created or originated by these three employees, and none were circulated to or by them while employed in my office.” The first part of that statement is an evasion; of course Fina didn’t personally take the 28 photos of the two blondes getting it on together for the PowerPoint he sent out called “Banana Split.” But the latter part of the statement is certainly true, and it makes the whole matter a bit of an HR pickle for the DA’s Office. If the three men have been doing their jobs well in Philly, according to their supervisors, is it legitimate to fire them for behavior they exhibited at a prior job several years ago?

But this is key to NOW’s argument — the men should be fired because of the views they appear to hold, which inevitably color the way they perform their tasks as prosecutors. If you dislike women, or see them as subhuman, can you effectively prosecute violence against them? A similar question applies as a result of the racism in the emails, especially given that black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

At one point during the press conference, Philly NOW president Nina Ahmad said that the movement to have the men fired took time to gather steam because her members “were loathe to look at the emails.” That impulse is all wrong. Looking at the emails is the only thing that will make a difference. There’s a reason anti-abortion activists parade around with giant photos of fetuses, or animal rights advocates promote videos of animal cruelty at slaughterhouses. Can you imagine the impact if, next to the podium at City Hall during the NOW press conference, there was a poster-sized photo from the emails?

Printouts of the emails have been made available by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in three locations: Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. There’s a slideshow here with a little sampling. But there is no one place online to look at this stuff, which makes many of the conversations about what happens next distressingly vague.

Williams has no intention of firing Fina, Blessington or Constanzo, but even if he did, it will be a mostly symbolic victory. Men, perhaps even these men, will still think these things, laugh about them, even forward emails to each other; they’ll just make sure they do it from home. What’s really needed is an actual dialogue between men who send such emails and women who feel the impact of the attitudes that they promote, whether those women work with NOW or serve in City Council or are just regular old constituents. The conversation has to be graphic and specific, like the emails themselves. I’m thinking Milton Street as the moderator.

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.