Kenney Said Vigilantism “Will Not Be Tolerated.” So Why Is He Still Tolerating It?

Calling for the Christopher Columbus statue to come down is the right move but doesn't solve the broader problem of white backlash as the city reckons with racism.


The Christopher Columbus monument in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. | Photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

As I scrolled through videos on Tuesday of indignant white men wielding weapons at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, I recalled something Mayor Jim Kenney said earlier this month: “Moving forward, any signs of vigilantism will not be tolerated.”

The Mayor made that bold claim on June 2nd, one day after as many as 100 white men gathered in Fishtown to “protect” police officers and businesses in the neighborhood amid protests over racism and police brutality against Black people — the first of several similar gatherings since.

Some members of the group that met in Fishtown swung baseball bats and hammers as they roamed the streets for hours, projecting a clear air of intimidation. They decried recent citywide incidents of looting and destruction that they associated with the protests — a thinly veiled excuse to get violent themselves. Some altercations were caught on camera by protesters now demanding to know why police didn’t take more action. A WHYY producer who recorded the armed men on his phone tweeted that several of them “beat the shit out of me and pushed my girlfriend” during the evening. He later posted a photo of his bloody face.

Ever since Kenney made his no-tolerance pledge, I’ve wondered how he and the Philadelphia police department would act on that promise. But I’ve yet to see. Meanwhile, in the three weeks since his proclamation, another group of armed white men descended upon the now-covered-up Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza using decidedly vigilante tactics. (Footage from recent incidents appears to show men at Marconi Plaza punching, pushing, kicking, stomping, burning (with lighters and cigars) and sexually assaulting protesters, the Inquirer has reported.)

These demonstrations aren’t just incidents of “vigilantism”; they’re displays of white backlash. And just as they have in the past, police officers in Philadelphia are allowing these white men to go unchecked while they crack down on those fighting for Black rights.

The only hint of Kenney’s no-tolerance pledge has been the arrest of one man on Tuesday — 58-year-old John Mooney, charged by the District Attorney’s Office with ethnic intimidation, simple assault, reckless endangerment and harassment for allegedly attacking a Black photographer, Mel D. Cole, who was attending a protest calling for the Philadelphia police department to be defunded. Cole posted a video of a punch; for the PPD not to arrest Mooney would be a clear violation. Otherwise, the PPD’s Office of Internal Affairs has said it is investigating various incidents. Kenney’s push on Wednesday to remove the Columbus statue, while correct, doesn’t remedy the fact that another group of violent white men has taken over a public space on his watch. So long as the administration tolerates law enforcement that turns a blind eye to these violent groups, removing the monuments that they “guard” — like the Rizzo statue before Columbus’s — won’t solve or eradicate white backlash. It will only push it from one lightning rod to the next.

The city’s handling of vigilante gatherings raises “serious questions about policing and unequal application of the law in the City of Philadelphia,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement announcing Mooney’s arrest on Wednesday, noting that “antiracism protesters and journalists have been verbally and physically assaulted, in direct view of law enforcement officers who have — by the numbers — made far more arrests of protesters and journalists than they have of these bat-wielding, assaultive, and threatening individuals. It is no wonder, then, that Americans here and across the country have been marching nonstop since late May, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, to demand equal accountability and equal treatment under the law.”

Indeed, the department has highlighted its hypocrisy in its response to protesters. Some officers joked and shared pizza with white vigilantes in Fishtown earlier this month. Others have arrested five reporters attempting to hold them accountable. And still others tear-gassed cornered demonstrators whom the department has yet to prove acted in a violent or threatening manner that would warrant such a move.

I’m still left to wonder what “not tolerating vigilantism” would look like in Philadelphia. Maybe it would look like police officers turning around at protests to face the people who are actually armed and threatening instead of appearing to guard them. Maybe it would look like arresting the men who allegedly beat the WHYY producer. Maybe it would look like Kenney holding a press conference on Wednesday to clearly denounce white backlash after tensions peaked at the Columbus statue on Tuesday, rather than leaving that role to a district attorney who’s become conservatives’ go-to scapegoat for racial polarization in Philadelphia.

These are just some first steps. But instead, for too long, we’ve afforded white men the luxury of being able to evade reckoning for their actions.

Recent vigilante displays recall a history of white backlash in Philadelphia. Some citizens may remember an incident in Southwest Philadelphia in 1985 when roughly 200 white people formed an “angry, mostly young mob” outside a household belonging to a Black man and a white woman, shouting racial slurs and demanding that they and a family that was Black leave the then-mostly-white neighborhood, according to an archived article in the New York Times. Vandals reportedly later broke into and damaged the Black family’s home.

After that 1985 incident, Charles Bowser, a Black Philadelphia-based lawyer and civic leader, told the Times that “there are sort of pockets of racism that exist in our society, and I think that for some time we are going to be faced with the problem of reducing the size of these pockets of racism. … [W]here you have neighborhoods that view themselves almost as families, or as almost quasi-private domains, there’s still strong racial resistance.”

Call these displays what you want: white backlash, vigilantism, pockets of racism. But until we no longer tolerate them, we will remain rooted firmly in the past. After his claim, Kenney is responsible for setting a new tone that condemns white backlash and holds accountable a police department that hasn’t shown that it’s capable of acting on his intentions.

Otherwise, our mayor’s no-tolerance pledge remains an empty promise.