By All Means, Philly, #MuteRKelly — but #EvictJewellWilliams Too

A City Council resolution to ban disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly from the city is commendable, but that same energy should also be directed to support local movements for accountability around sexual misconduct.

sheriff, sexual harassment

Jewell Williams

It’s always great when local elected officials can take on a national issue in a huge way — but it’s even better when they can take the same kind of action here at home.

And that’s why I’m both excited for and underwhelmed by Councilwoman Helen Gym’s proposal to keep disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly from being welcomed in Philadelphia.

The resolution, co-sponsored by councilmembers Blondell Reynolds Brown, Cherelle Parker, Allan Domb, Derek Green, and Al Taubenberger, acknowledges the work of #MuteRKelly organizers Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, who have called for institutions to boycott the singer from venues following 25 years of sexual misconduct allegations. (Kelly has consistently denied all allegations and was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008.)

Although there doesn’t appear to be an R. Kelly concert headed to Philly any time soon, the resolution is still commendable for helping the city further the national #MeToo conversation and efforts to protect Black girls. That being said, I couldn’t help but notice a local movement that’s pushing for accountability around sexual misconduct allegations currently surrounding another person of power in our own backyard — embattled Sheriff Jewell Williams, who is currently running for re-election.

Last week, city officials agreed to pay a $127,500 settlement to a former Sheriff’s Office employee who had sued Williams for allegedly sexually harassing her. (Williams’s lawyer has said he was not involved in the city’s decision to settle.) This is the second sexual harassment case involving Williams that has been settled since 2012, and he is still facing another federal lawsuit over harassment allegations from another former employee. Williams has repeatedly denied all claims of sexual harassment.

“I believe women,” Gym told me over the weekend when I asked her about her stance on #MeToo issues related to Williams. “Jewell Williams should resign.”

Following Gym’s #MuteRKelly resolution, a new hashtag has emerged in Philly — #EvictJewellWilliams. Created by a group of local Black women, the hashtag has already been shared on social media by the Philadelphia Commission for Women and the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW).

“While it is important to stand up for victims of sexual abuse whenever and wherever it occurs,” said Malika Rahman, a candidate for sheriff running against Williams, in a statement regarding Gym’s resolution. “It is imperative that we start by standing up for the women closest to us: the women who face these issues in our very own communities.”

“All I’m saying is if we gone #MuteRKelly then we need to #EvictJewellWilliams,” another Black woman said on Facebook while sharing the Commission for Women’s November 2017 press release calling for Williams’s resignation.

I totally agree that it’s time for him to step down. While there is a difference in the scope of crimes R. Kelly has been accused of and the allegations Williams is facing, elected officials are, and should be, held to a much higher standard of conduct. And so I think it’s not enough for local politicians to join forces to condemn an international superstar without channeling that same energy to tackle those accused right here in Philly.

While Gym is garnering national press for this resolution while also running for re-election in very contested at-large Council race, I don’t take her efforts as a calculated publicity stunt. But wouldn’t it be as impactful to call out the powerful figures within the local Democratic party as it is to call out a celebrity who isn’t currently scheduled to appear here?

Moving forward, if our elected officials are truly in solidarity with women across the city who are calling for more accountability for those being accused repeatedly of sexual misconduct, they should speak out and loud against Williams. They should join Mayor Jim Kenney, who has already called twice for Williams’s resignation, and several other notable elected officials who have also announced that they won’t be endorsing Williams. And while City Council resolutions do hold weight, visible and public stances hold more.

“When do we stand in solidarity and support for the women who have suffered sexual harassment from Jewell Williams?” Rahman asked at the conclusion of her statement. “Change can’t wait.”

Now is the time for courage to lead more than cowardice. Gym’s resolution has already shown us one thing: City Council is ready to combat sexual misconduct. Now it’s time for them to do so in their own backyard.