I’ve long known that race plays an outsized role in how laws and policies are shaped. But in recent weeks, I’ve seen more clearly how class also determines who suffers injustice — especially in Philadelphia.
Class is ever-present in the fight over Philadelphia’s soda tax, which disproportionately affects the poor. It’s also front-and center in the conflict over supervised injection sites in our city.
In the last year, I’ve often pointed out that the War On Drugs disproportionately jailed people of color during the crack years. I’ve argued that the so-called opioid crisis — in which mostly white people have died from overdoses — has been treated with kid gloves. As the complexion of addiction changed, and policymakers decided that jail was no longer the best way to punish illegal drug use, I strongly believed that race was the overriding factor behind the difference in how people were treated. Then I met the people of Harrowgate.
A poor community on the northeast border of Kensington, Harrowgate is the community where Safehouse, a nonprofit with a projected annual budget of $1.8 million, wants to place its first Supervised Injection Site. The majority of neighbors are opposed to the site, and at a forum I arranged in partnership with the Harrowgate Civic Association, they spoke vociferously against the proposed location, on 1800 E. Hilton St., on a block shared by a day-care center.
Shannon Farrell, president of the Harrowgate Civic Association, is white, but she’s leading the fight on behalf of a community that is largely Latino, and many of her neighbors are firmly behind her, as evidenced by petitions they’ve signed.
Farrell’s race matters, because she and other neighbors believe their economic status, and not their skin color, has caused city officials to ignore them.
Now, Farrell says, the neighbors are looking out for their own needs. They’re choosing their children’s safety over the drug dealers she says have shot and killed people in her neighborhood.
“I call [the drug dealers] the mayor’s business associates," she said, "because I keep trying to say to them, ‘If you open this site, you are keeping these violent drug dealers who have shot our kids, and killed some of them, in business.’ ”
Still, Farrell, who was among those who traveled to Toronto with Safehouse to see a supervised injection site, remains unconvinced that the nonprofit has her community’s needs in mind.
After seeing the supervised injection site in Toronto, Farrell came away believing that such sites serve to contain drug use to specific areas. She doesn’t want to see her community become such a place.
Timothy McCloskey, who also is white, lives in the Kensington neighborhood adjacent to Harrowgate. He shares Farrell’s concern.
“The drug dealers aren’t gonna be right in front of the safe injection site, but they’re gonna be three or four blocks away,” McCloskey told me in an interview. “And I live three or four blocks away. I don’t want the kids in the neighborhood to be caught up in the gunfire that gets involved with the drug dealers …”
McCloskey, who says his family has lived in Kensington for 150 years, believes the mayor and others who support such sites should come to his community to see beyond the poverty.
“If Mayor Kenney would just take the El one day from City Hall, it would take him 15 minutes to get here to walk around," he said. "He’d see regular people going to work in the morning and having to walk their kids past people with needles in their necks, and drug dealers, and people offering works [needles] for a dollar, which they got for free from Prevention Point.
“We’re real people here. There’s 1,000 people here that are homeless, supposedly. There’s another 10,000 people who live in this neighborhood who are trying to work every day and be there for their kids.”
I agree with McCloskey. Regardless of their incomes, the hardworking people of his neighborhood deserve to be heard in this fight.