Protesters: Comcast chooses greed over schoolchildren

Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools coordinator Ron Whitehorne talks at a rally outside City Hall on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (STEVEN M. FALK/Staff Photographer)

NEARLY 100 teachers, students, nonprofit workers and community advocates marched from City Hall to Comcast Corp.'s Center City headquarters last night demanding that the cable goliath fund Philadelphia's debt-ridden school district.

The protesters spared the company no mercy.

"I hope you hear our babies cry," the Rev. Gregory Halston said outside Comcast's 58-story building. Halston, the pastor of New Vision United Methodist Church on North Broad Street, decried Comcast's tax breaks over the construction of its headquarters.

"They chose to put greed in their pockets instead of helping our children," he said.

The demonstration came on the heels of the city's negotiations with Comcast over a new franchise agreement, which would maintain Comcast's cable primacy in Philly for 15 more years.

Franchise agreements let Comcast use city infrastructure to run and maintain its cable services, such as laying cable under city streets. The cable giant has more than 6,000 similar agreements across the nation, letting Comcast use city resources and space for a fee, in addition to usual requirements to maintain local programming.

Yesterday's protest was organized by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and the CAP Comcast Coalition, both community groups advocating for economic and social justice. With the franchise agreement set to expire this fall, the groups have put pressure on Comcast to pay the school district $35 million for new computers and citywide Internet access for students as demands for a new agreement.

Comcast initially directed reporters seeking a response to the protest to Lisabeth Marziello, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia. She vigorously defended Comcast's financial support of the group and criticized the protesters' demands.

"Comcast is one company and they're doing the best they can," she said. "They're listening."

When asked about a statistic repeatedly cited by protesters listing Philadelphia as 23rd of the 25 major cities in percentage of households with a broadband connection, Marziello was incredulous.

"I don't understand that statistic, because our kids [at the Boys & Girls Clubs] are getting a clear connection with the stuff Comcast has provided."

Comcast spearheaded a $40 million drive in May to renovate seven Boys & Girls Clubs in Philadelphia, according to the Inquirer. Marziello said the protesters ignored Comcast's contribution to children through the donation.

"The people who are making these demands aren't knowledgeable," she said. "I don't think people have done their homework. They should do their homework before pointing fingers and making demands."

Additionally, Comcast has given more than $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia over the last seven years, according to statistics provided by Comcast spokeswoman Jen Bilotta.

This fall, the City Council Committee on Public Property and Public Works will debate a new franchise agreement. The protesters voiced confidence in their lawmakers, although a key supporter was absent. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, a committee member, backed out at the last minute, according to protest organizers.

"I don't really know why she couldn't come," PCAPS coordinator Ron Whitehorne said. Democratic City Council nominee Helen Gym spoke at the rally.


On Twitter: @dspin3