Kenney, the cops, and exorcising Frank Rizzo's ghost

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Police hold back protesters at the delegate entrance at the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

The mercury read 97 on Monday afternoon, but even that didn’t reflect the rising temperatures outside South Philly’s ATT Station subway stop when as many as 200 marchers with the Democracy Spring anti-money-in-politics protests literally crashed the gates, eager to disrupt the Democratic National Convention.

A thin blue line of bicycle cops and other Philadelphia police officers grew thicker. Tensions mounted. Longtime area residents watching the scene unfold cringed and held their collective breath, remembering the 2000 Republican convention – when more than 400 protesters were arrested and often tossed in jail – as well as the sometimes brutal 1960s-and-‘70s reign of police-commissioner-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo.

And then…the potential bomb was defused. Some 54 of the protesters were led away and briefly detained, then handed the equivalent of a traffic ticket, charging them with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. No one was arrested -- thanks to a relaxation of laws regarding protests signed by Mayor Kenney last month. Even with thousands of protesters coursing through Philadelphia’s streets this week, it’s still possible that no one will be arrested.

“We don’t need to put people in the criminal justice pipeline,” Kenney told me on Tuesday, as music from a swank reception for the Congressional Black Caucus at Del Frisco’s steak house pulsated in the background. “I don’t want to arrest anybody -- that’s our goal.”

The Cisco Kid had to be spinning in his grave. Rizzo, who once personally punched a civil rights protester outside Girard College, raided members of the Black Panthers and ordered them stripped naked, and bragged that as mayor he would “make Attila the Hun look like a [anti-gay slur],” had defined urban “law-and-order” for the latter 20th Century. More importantly, he helped to brand Philadelphia as a hard place, a reputation that would linger as the city’s reputation long after the legendary lawman died in 1991.

There’s been something big happening in Philadelphia during this hellishly hot week -- a plot twist that’s been buried under the invasion of Bernie’s die-hard supporters, the Democrats’ coronation of Hillary Clinton, and the non-stop griping from pampered Beltway journalists that bad convention logistics has left them too little air conditioned or too long waiting for their Uber ride.

The DNC has marked Philadelphia’s coming out as city that’s outgrown its culturally conservative roots and its long hangover from its bitter conflicts of the ‘60s. ‘70s, and ‘80s, to become a bastion of  progressivism. And all week, the face of that shift has been Kenney, the first-year mayor who sprung from the very same South Philadelphia streets that had nurtured Rizzo decades earlier. The son of a city firefighter and a former aide to the ultimate machine pol in ex-state Sen. Vince Fumo, Kenney had complained as a rookie city councilman in the 1990s about police not able to use pepper spray or flashlights on suspects. He seemed to be following in Rizzo’s footsteps.

Then, he drifted politically leftward, beginning with support for bringing more immigrants to Philadelphia. Today, Kenney’s known – and despised in right-wing circles – for defending the city’s status as a “Sanctuary City” in which police won’t turn over undocumented immigrants for potential deportation. On Monday, he made immigration the focus of his address to the DNC, comparing the GOP’s Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall with the anti-Irish Know Nothings who tried to keep his Irish ancestors out of America.

In the run-up to his mayoralty and his first seven months in office, Kenney has strongly backed decriminalizing pot, LGBTQ rights, and police reform. On Tuesday afternoon, he brought up the “R” word without any prompting.

“We’re still digging out from the Rizzo years,” the mayor told me. In the past – even more recently during the run-up to the 2000 GOP convention here – local or state police secretly spied on would-be protesters. In 2016, the top cops and the leading demonstrators openly got to know each other ahead of the DNC. With the heat wave, the city has even placed medics amid the marchers. In June, Kenney signed the law that made acts of civil disobedience which would once could have led to jail time instead punishable by a $100 fine.

“I tell you what I’m really happy about,” Kenney said. “I’ve been stopped by more people with Bernie T-shirts, telling me that our police officers are interactive, kind, helpful, [and] decent with them and they’re really engaging with the people out there protesting.”

Monday’s unruly demonstration in sight of the Wells Fargo Center wasn’t the only potential flashpoint that was defused. When protesters complained about Mississippi’s state flag – which includes Confederate stars and bars – hanging amid a row of state flags on South Broad Street, the Kenney administration took it down. When baggage handlers at the Philadelphia airport said they’d walk off their job because of wage and race discrimination, Kenney worked with Gov. Wolf to broker a peace deal.

Kenney’s ideas about keeping the peace in a contentious big city couldn’t be any different from the Donald Trump’s hard-edged promises – inspired by Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, which played off Rizzo’s regime in Philly – to restore law-and-order in America.

“[Trump] wants to go back to the old days,” the mayor said. “He wants to round people up, build walls, put them in jail. I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time anyway. It’s like listening to the WWF” – pro wrestling.

After the interview, I walked the two blocks to the massive statue of Rizzo that stands in front of the Municipal Services Building. It was amusing to see that parked directly in front of it was a large bus belonging to “Black Men for Bernie,” with a large picture of cops roughly arresting a young Sanders at a civil rights protest in the early 1960s. Occasionally, pro-Sanders protesters strolled past the Rizzo monument without looking up. The statue depicts the 1970s mayor striding purposefully and raising his right hand. On this day, it looked like he was waving goodbye.