Is Mayor Jim Kenney trying to have it both ways?

ICE and soda

3 minute read
Does the city's soda tax hurt communities it's supposed to help? (Photo via
Does the city's soda tax hurt communities it's supposed to help? (Photo via

Jim Kenney became Philadelphia’s mayor with two pledges: he would put the interests of poorer communities first, in a city whose poverty rate still exceeds 25 percent, the highest such rate of any large city in the country; and he would robustly contest the policies of Donald Trump, particularly on the subject of immigration. He hasn’t lived up to either one.​

The mayor’s sales tax on soft drinks is a sin tax in the guise of a health measure. Other cities have adopted something similar; some have rejected it.

Philadelphia’s levy was crafted to withstand the expected court challenge, and it has. Opponents must now fall back on the gerrymandered Republican state legislature, which, thanks to the Trump administration’s recent “finding” that poverty has now been eliminated in America, isn’t likely to deal with the issue any time soon.

Sweet deal?

The sin at issue here is excessive sugar consumption. Unquestionably, it is bad for you, and if we wanted to get serious about our national diet we would go after the food manufacturers who load their products with it and we would make healthy food available at an affordable price for all.

As for the community improvements the soda tax is supposed to pay for, well, we know where that dough winds up. And taxing people for purposes they haven’t agreed to is the opposite of democracy, whatever our “representatives” may decide. Had a revolution about that, once.

One thing we do know Jim Kenney is keen on using Philadelphia’s money for is bringing Amazon’s new headquarters to town. How much of it, for how long, and at what cost to the city’s coffers is a subject about which he is uncharacteristically silent. He’s not alone among big- and small-city mayors alike in this respect, of course. But Amazon will only enrich the rich.

For the jobs Amazon is likely to bring, it will also raise rents and exacerbate gentrification. In short, it will squeeze the poor harder and force more people into poverty. It’s a tradeoff most cities, or at least their elites, are salivating to make. It would be cheering to have at least one mayor reject that particular sugared bait. It won't be Mayor Kenney, though.

One of Philly's anti-ICE encampments before it was destroyed by police. (Photo by Unicorn Riot via
One of Philly's anti-ICE encampments before it was destroyed by police. (Photo by Unicorn Riot via

Which side are you on?

As for standing up to Trump, the story’s in on Kenney here, too. The peaceful protesters who set up camp outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE) in Philadelphia this month were there to represent the conscience of the city in the face of something America hasn’t seen in over a century: the forcible separation of children from their parents without hearing or charge.

ICE, to be sure, was only one of several agencies involved in these operations, but it is also notorious for its indiscriminate roundups of immigrants, many long settled and employed. Kenney professed his support of the nationwide movement demanding the dismantling of ICE.

When push came to shove, though, the mayor decided that impeding access to a federal building was “a threat to public safety.” Hundreds of Philadelphia’s finest promptly bike-dozed the protest encampment with apparent glee. Frank Rizzo had to be smiling somewhere.

Let’s go over this one. The protesters were exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. They were challenging a widely denounced policy that violated Philadelphia’s declared status as a sanctuary city and would compel state and city workers to do the work of federal agencies. They were standing up for neighbors, colleagues, and kids against tactics and policies that can be described, not unreasonably, as terroristic. They were the ones who got busted.

Kenney wasn’t done with setting benchmarks for hypocrisy. Attacked for sending in the cops, he offered the following comment at a press conference the next day: “I actually agree with the protesters and have been working very hard to keep people, immigrants documented and undocumented, safe.”

George Orwell would have stood up next to Frank Rizzo at that one. But not with a smile.

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