Wall Street Gets Bailed Out, Philly Gets Thrown Out

By Sean West (Philly NEFAC)

Despite news of a massive economic crisis sounding throughout the nation, we in Philly seemingly got a break from the bad news in the later weeks of October into November. We partied. The Phil’s won the World Series, resulting in wild, rowdy festivities up and down Broad Street (and a wee bit of rioting). Halloween celebrations went off across the city with their usual flair and fun. Then, in early November the wild street parties went off again when the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday, November 4th brought to an end eight years of neoconservative rule.

Then, announcing a sweeping round of cuts to social services and city government to balance the budget, Mayor Nutter crashed the party on November 6th. . I’ll be fair and say that the budget crisis is not entirely of the Mayor’s making. He’s dealing with an economic crisis brought about by the misdeeds and quest for profit-at-any-expense brought about by Wall Street, major financial institutions, and the rich, which is now hitting home in many major American cities and municipalities. Wall Street has been bailed out while working people have been thrown out of their homes and jobs, have left college for lack of tuition and cities have been left to fend for themselves.

I’ll say it how I feel it, Nutter has tried to solve the crisis with sweeping budget cuts directly attacking working people, the poor, various neighborhoods, youth and union while pandering to wealthy developers and city hall hacks. What civil servant needs a six figure salary? Why do wealthy developers get a 10 year tax abatement while our neighborhoods have to lose libraries, pools and fire engine and ladder companies?

As of print here is a partial list of some of the original cuts:
  • Closing 5 fire engine companies and 2 ladder companies
  • Closing 11 library branches: Queen Memorial, Kingsessing, Fumo Family, Logan, Ogontz, Durham, Fishtown, Wadsworth, Haddington, Holmesburg and Eastwick.
  • Closing almost all our city pools, 62 out of 73!
  • Getting rid of street cleaning and snow removal on more small neighborhood streets…unless the snow is a foot deep!
  • 220 city workers to be laid off ( as of print time the number has dropped to down to about 100)
  • A 2 million dollar cut in funding to The Community College of Philadelphia (Again, in fairness, Nutter increased CCP funding by 4 million before making the 2 million cut…but CCP students still need that money not real estate developers or casinos!)

Nutter’s announcement of the cuts sparked outrage among many Philly residents, particularly around the closure of the libraries and fire engine and ladder companies. However, the pools are also a big deal to most people. It’s likely that the public outrage about their closures will rise along with the temperature next year when kids have no place to cool off and learn how to swim. Citizens will also likely be up in arms when a snowstorm covers the city with anything less than a foot of snow and residents have to shovel out their entire block to get to work.

Get Your Hands Off Our Books You F***N Crooks!

“You reach a certain point where you say, ‘I’m not doing that! If you want someone to do this to the library system that I love, find somebody else. I will not implement that kind of drastic cut…. I will leave and I will tell the public why!’”- Councilman Nutter after being awarded a ‘Politician of the Year’” by Library Journal in 2005

It made me proud to be a Philadelphian when right after the announcement of library closures my neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, Kingsessing, had posters against the library closures stapled to telephone poles, taped to street poles and a petition drive underway just days after Nutter announced his plans. I was even happier when I attended my first rally against the library closures in Fishtown, which is also losing a fire engine company. The rally drew well over two hundred people to this tight, scrappy, well-organized neighborhood. People had signs printed up, a banner and dozens of letters from kids in Fishtown to deliver to the mayor.

It would be generous to say that there are a few things that are lost on Mayor Nutter and Free Library Director Siobhan Reardon (who orchestrated the branch closures when the Mayor declared the Free Library system would need to make an 8 million cut to their budget.) We are, as the old cliché goes, a city of neighborhoods and our branch libraries are incredibly important to us.

Our branch libraries are much more then a place where you can check out a book, they are a hub of services for residents. For people without internet access at home, Libraries are the only public place that bridges the digital divide and allow residents access to information and services they would otherwise not have such as: internet based employment searches, tutorials on writing a resume, the ability to send an e-mail to a relative in another state or to search out knowledge on things that have caught their interest. Our branch libraries provide invaluable children’s programs such as: Storyhour, Science in the Summer and the highly valued LEAP program, in which students receive tutoring for school work, mentoring and have a safe place to ask questions and get answers. In addition, branch libraries supplement area public schools since many schools do not have their own libraries or (limited library services) and their students depend upon the branch libraries for access to books!

The importance of neighborhood libraries was expressed best when I attended the two rallies at my local branch library, Kingsessing. The first, on Saturday November 15th, fortunately fell on an unseasonably warm day, and as I approached the library I could hear a DJ spinning some classic numbers, and saw people gathering around the demonstration. The protest drew hundreds of people to hear community residents, old and young alike, express not only their love for the libraries, but their outrage at the budget cuts as well.

On the following Saturday, November 22nd residents across the city braved the cold and demonstrated in front of the branch libraries in their neighborhoods. At the Kingsessing branch, people were “fired up despite the cold” as one blog put it. Local youth put on a performance piece, along with many speakers and a gospel group. It was amazing to see nearly a hundred people out despite the frigid conditions, and later on television, to watch as people came out all over the city to protest the cuts and defend their branch libraries.

Behond the rallies were amazing community organizing efforts led by neighborhood associations. These grassroots organizers have brought many people together to defend their communities and put pressure on decision makers. Included in this effort has been The Friends of the Free Library, which has devoted many resources to defending the branches.

Unfortunately, without the input of the communities, The Friends of the Free Library offered a concession to the administration, allowing them to make cuts across all branches so they would be open three days a week. Curiously, this even fell short even of Councilman Bill Green’s proposal to conduct a survey of when the specific branches were underutilized and cut hours accordingly. In any struggle, it’s common sense to put pressure on your opponent and let them offer a concession rather than lowering the bar for them.

The Friends of the Free Library was limited in their ability to take more effective action by their role as a non profit that needs to maintain a relationship with Siobhan Reardon after this struggle is over. Various block captains, residents and organizers quickly grasped this fact and brought together The Coalition to Save Our Libraries, an organization freed from the constraints of ongoing political relationships, free to organize more “in your face” style protests and free to take direct action if needed.

The importance of the The Friends of the Free Library was highlighted, however, when council passed a non-binding resolution on December 6th calling on Mayor Nutter for a six-month moratorium on library closures while a study could be conducted on the impact of the closures and possible alternatives. First-term Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez of the 7th district introduced the resolution. The resolution passed 12-5. The five who opposed the resolution were Council President Anna Verna (District 2), Frank DiCicco (District1), Marian Tasco (District 9) and at-large council members James Kenney and William Greenlee. Let’s not allow the five council people who voted against the resolution forget their choice, especially Anna Verna, who as council president refused to hold the hearings the resolution called for by arguing that council was powerless and the decision to close libraries “…was strictly up to the mayor.” As this resolution was non-binding, Mayor Nutter was quick to respond stating that library closures would go ahead as planned.

A large, vibrant demonstration of over 300 people from the various neighborhoods took place at the Central Library branch on December 6th. Many people spoke: children from local schools, community leaders, and council people. At the end of the rally youth from the Philadelphia Student Union and various community groups led a march to city hall and demanded to speak to the mayor or a representative. According to the protest police (aka Civil Affairs), the mayor’s entire team were all at the Army/Navy football game at that time.

The mayor’s unwillingness to speak to the crowd (or at least to have a representative on hand), and his haste to disregard council’s resolution for a moratorium, illustrated the arrogance of Nutter’s administration and their insulation from public opinion. Pride comes before the fall indeed!

Many residents had been putting pressure on Nutter during the ‘town hall’ meetings he’d been holding to talk about his budget cuts. These ‘town hall’ meetings were essentially ‘dog and pony’ shows where the mayor would explain his rationale for the cuts and during ‘Q & A’ would repeatedly cut people off, not answer questions directly, essentially refusing to engage in any meaningful dialogue. While people bravely spoke out during all the town meetings, Nutter was certainly in for a surprise when he came to the Kingsessing Rec Center where the people filling the facility started booing and chanting ‘Save Our Libraries” before he even got up to speak. Free Library Director Siobhan Reardon was literally booed off stage when she was introduced and looked visibly shaken throughout the meeting. One highlight of the town meetings was watching the mayor being caught off guard when he couldn’t name the schools lacking libraries in proximity to them, but most touching was the feeling of community and solidarity that pervaded the room. Whenever the mayor tried to dodge a question, a chorus of people, shouted “answer the question”. When people would bring up ending the tax abatements, or downplay children having to walk two miles to the nearest library, spontaneous chants of “Tax the Rich” or “Save Our Libraries” would break out.

While the town meetings throughout Philly let people blow off some steam, there was clearly still a fight to be had, and this fight would shortly take a surprising new direction.

Two separate lawsuits were filed citing a 1988 city ordinance that prohibits the mayor from closing public facilities without City Council’s approval. In one--a class action lawsuit--attorney Irv Acklesberg represented plaintiffs from various neighborhoods that would be negatively affected by the library closures. In another City Council members Bill Green, Jannie L. Blackwell, and Jack Kelly filed suit claiming, essentially, that the mayor was not doing his job by failing to put the closures up for a council vote.

People mobilized through The Coalition to Save Our Libraries, as well as other groups, to pack the courtrooms at city hall and to speak their opposition at a press conference Mayor Nutter was holding on the first day of the hearings. Nutter’s press conference was met by a crowd holding signs and hollering at the mayor’s announcement that the LEAP after-school-program was going to be transferred to the Rec centers and that the libraries slated for closing would eventually be privatized and reopened as “Knowledge Centers.” Details on the “Knowledge Centers” were slim; no details were givien on what companies or foundations would fund and operate them and when the libraries would reopen as “Knowledge Centers.” One person held up a sign that read “Restored Service is a Cheap Knockoff” giving voice to many peoples’ suspicions that the announcement was a way to deflect criticism, and to avoid legal arguments. To date, no concrete plan explaining the “Knowledge Centers” has been released. Why? Perhaps there is no plan.

On the second day of the hearings, residents with The Coalition to Save the Libraries held a gathering outside city hall and delivered a “People’s Indictment” of Mayor Nutter charging him with abandoning the task of educating youth, eliminating safe havens for them, expanding the digital divide, ignoring the peoples’ will along with other misdeeds. Then people filed into the courthouse for the final testimony and the judge’s ruling.

People openly wept and cheered when Judge Fox ruled that the libraries could not be shut down without city council approval and issued an injunction prohibiting the libraries from closing. The next day, January 31st, the Kingsessing branch library hosted a large multi-neighborhood celebration in its basement. People danced and sang, got up on the mic to testify to the amazing victory, shared food and conversation and a lot of smiles. Importantly, people stated emphatically that the struggle is far from over.

It is certain that Mayor Nutter will appeal Judge Fox’s ruling and request expedited legal proceedings that could possibly overrule the injunction which is keeping the libraries open. If the ruling is upheld, we will need to hold city council accountable by putting pressure on them to keep the libraries open.

Already, Mayor Nutter has deployed a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Mayor Nutter is instituting rolling, unpredictable closures throughout the entire library branch system. This will cause the inconvenience of unforseen, poorly announced disruptions of library service. Mayor Nutter claims this is the result of a crisis due to staff lay offs in anticipation of the closures. Rather than fixing this crisis, it appears he is attempting to pit neighborhoods against one another by creating inconvenience and unpredictability throughout the whole system.

Clearly, the struggle is far from over. The Coalition To Save the Libraries is meeting and strategizing for the struggle ahead. For more information get down to your neighborhood library, get on the web and check out http://coalitiontosavethelibraries.blogspot.com or shoot them an e-mail save.11.libraries@gmail.com.

Wow Nutter! Thanks for Letting My House Burn To The Ground!

In the city that gave birth the modern Fire Department, Nutter wants to cut back five Fire Engine companies and two ladder companies--mostly in poor and working class neighborhoods.

Losing the engine and ladder companies will rob Philadelphia of more than just the ability to keep our homes from burning. In this city, where the ambulance system is overburdened, often the first responders to a medical emergency will be--you guessed it--fire fighters. They call them “shoe runs”, because they don’t put on the boots they need to fight fires. According to data released from the Philadelphia Fire Department, “the engine and ladder companies slated to be cut responded to a total of 5,761 fires, 6,016 ‘shoe runs’ (medical emergencies)” and only 16 false alarms last year. Two companies are slated to be cut in Center City and one each in South, North and Northeast Philly, Kensington/Port Richmond and Roxborough/Manyunk.

Whether firefighters are performing CPR on a victim of a heart attack, pulling children out of burning buildings, or putting out a blaze and saving someone’s home, the cutbacks on Fire Engine companies no. 1,6,8 and 14, and the Ladder companies no. 1 and 11 mean one thing for people in the affected neighborhoods: People will die. The difference between minutes lost in travel time mean lives lost.

The Philadelphia Firefighter Union’s (IAFF Local 22) has taken its fight and the fight of the communities it serves to the streets. Engine No. 6 rallied community members and its rank and file to take over the intersection of Aramingo Ave and Huffington Street for over an hour. At Mayor Nutter’s town hall meeting at Kensington High, firefighters and residents were out in full force. Recently, I was told by a friend in the Francisville section of North Philadelphia, that in their neighborhood, firefighters occupied a busy intersection along with residents as well.

On December 15th, firefighters from IAFF Local 22 marched five hundred strong alongside members of other unions and community residents to protest the cuts at city hall. Brian McBride IAFF Local 22 president was quoted as saying, “The Mayor’s study fails to consider the critical facts ...It’s not ok to tell someone whose house is burning down they need to wait a little longer because ‘our study’ says so. When lives are at stake you can’t afford to close these engines and ladders.”

On December 16th IAFF Local 22 filed suit against the city to halt the closures. The suit aimed for an injunction so that a grievance on workplace-safety issues, filed with the city on Dec. 3, could be heard before the engine and ladder company closures.

On December 30th Common Pleas Judge Gary DiVito struck a blow against the safety of all Philadelphians when he ruled against the Firefighters’ injunction.

IAFF Local 22 responded quickly filing an emergency appeal with the Commonwealth Court on December 31st. IAFF Local 22 President Brian McBride said in a statement, “I have reviewed the judge’s decision. It is a disgrace, it has no basis in law or fact, and it basically rubber-stamps the Nutter Administration’s dangerous plan to cut fire protection. From my vantage point, it looks like the judge simply didn’t want to rock the boat.”

Currently, the engines and ladder companies are being closed down and the fight will continue in the courts. However, we, as Philadelphians, can make a difference by keeping an eye on the news and supporting any rally the firefighter’s call together.

You can keep up to date by checking out the union’s website at iaff22.org.

The Struggle Ahead: Next Year’s Budget and Some Class Struggle Conclusions

With the struggle against the current cuts in social services, and next year’s budgeting process on the horizon, we need to strategize for the new battles around the corner. Philadelphians will have to band together, form coalitions, and bring more of our neighbors into the fight in order to increase the pressure on the administration with more protests, campaigns and direct actions.

The mobilization against the cuts has seen some amazing accomplishments. In the struggle against the branch library cuts, neighborhoods have not been divided along lines of race or geography, rather, they have stood together in saying “no” to the closure all of the branches rather than merely focussing on the interests of their own neighborhood.

I offer a few suggestions in building our fight against Nutter’s budget proposal and the broader fight we’ll be facing in the coming years of the economic crisis, against cuts in social services and against working people, unions and our communities.

A Coalition of Neighborhood Associations:

We in Philadelphia could only be advanced in our struggles and day-to-day lives by a network of neighborhood associations not tied to our city council people. We could share in our common struggles, and build trust and relationships by showing solidarity with each other, in our particular neighborhood struggles. The Coalition to Save The Libraries is a fresh effort in that direction and ought to be supported.

Cross-Pollinate:

People who are fighting the fire engine closures need to represent at protests against the library closures and vice versa. A blow against one is a blow against all and we need to further network and support each other in our citywide fight against the administration. As their contracts expire, the unions will be facing one hell of a fight next year and we need to stand by them. Addionally, the fight to save our city pools has yet to begin

Broaden the Base and Deepen The Struggle:

We need to be organizing and bringing more new people into the struggles (i.e. broadening) while escalating our tactics in a diverse manner against Mayor Nutter and other decision makers. Of course, the bottom line on any action we take is that we need to make sure our neighbors, co-workers and allies are taking these actions alongside of us, and that we are not alienating people who are ready to fight. We need to reach people ‘where they’re at’ and create exciting levels of involvement for everyone who is ready to fight in their own way.

Our Job Is To Fight For What WE Want:

We should be demanding what WE as citizens want in our city rather than making policy suggestions to Mayor Nutter and other “decision makers” on balancing the budget... Our success should be a measure of the popular power we’re able to build, not a reinforcement of the power of the Nutter administration.

As a class struggle Anarchist, I envision and struggle for a society where the people who live in the neighborhoods and work the jobs can dispose of politicians and bosses and make decisions about their work and their communities through direct democracy and popular assemblies. There is a proud tradition of such struggles—in which Anarchists have played a part—including the struggle for the eight hour work day, struggles for civil rights, women’s rights and much more. We continue to fight today to defend the rights of working people against attacks by the ruling class, and protect the gains of past struggles.

With the latest economic crisis the capitalist economy has caused, it’s hard to imagine such a utopia. However, I’m confident that we here in Philly can build a powerful struggle and fight to win despite the hard times to come. This crisis didn’t strart in November and won’t end this December. Keep loving, keep fighting!