PHILADELPHIA — The painful images and graphic stories of repeated violent assaults and vandalism by mobs of black teenagers had gotten to be too much for Mayor Michael Nutter.
As an elected official and a “proud black man” in the nation’s fifth-largest city, Nutter felt he had to go a step beyond ordering a law enforcement crackdown.
So he channeled the spirit of another straight-talking Philadelphian: Bill Cosby. Nutter took to the pulpit at his church last weekend and gave an impassioned, old-fashioned talking-to directed at the swarms of teens who have been using social networks to arrange violent sprees downtown, injuring victims and damaging property. Moreover, he called out parents for not doing a better job raising their children.
“You’ve damaged yourself, you’ve damaged another person, you’ve damaged your peers and, quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race,” Nutter said at Mount Carmel Baptist Church.
The 54-year-old mayor, married with a teenage daughter and a grown son, called out absentee fathers and neglectful parents. He did not mince words, saying they need to be more than just a “sperm donor” or a “human ATM.”
“That’s part of the problem in our community,” Nutter told the congregation. “Let me speak plainer: That’s part of the problem in the black community. … We have too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of and then we end up dealing with your children.”
It’s a version of the tough-love message Cosby and others have telegraphed for years.
“I am a proud black man in this country,” Nutter said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was a message that needed to be said. It needed to be said at this time. … People have had enough of this nonsense, black and white.”
At a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathering in 2004, Cosby chided the black community in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the legal case that toppled segregated education.
“These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we’ve got these knuckleheads walking around,” Cosby said then.
“I can’t even talk the way these people talk, `Why you ain’t,’ `Where you is’ … and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk,” the entertainer said.
Nutter’s words also harkened back to a 2008 Father’s Day speech by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Obama told a church in Chicago. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
Now, it’s Nutter taking up the mantra.
Some feel his message was needed. Others say he’s airing private community matters now that crime is sprouting downtown, near businesses and popular tourist attractions in a sprawling city with many other sections already plagued by persistent gun violence.
Bill Anderson, a talk show host on the black radio station WURD-AM, estimated that about 60 percent of callers commenting on Nutter’s address supported him. But quite a few, Anderson said, believe Nutter simply doesn’t have the community standing to make such strong remarks.
“The perception is that he is not necessarily a `community guy. … He has been perceived as more of a business guy,” Anderson said, noting that he didn’t have a problem with the comments himself.
Anderson cited concerns among the black community, such as Nutter’s perceived focus on the city’s downtown over other neighborhoods, a newly enforced curfew for teens and Nutter’s endorsement of “stop-and-frisk” searches, a tactic police credit with reducing crime but that some feel unfairly targets minorities.
Annette John-Hall, a black columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote this week that the mayor crossed a line when he said, “You’ve damaged your own race.”
“We can deal with the public tongue-lashing, even if his intended targets were nowhere to be found among the law-abiding churchgoers in their Sunday best,” John-Hall wrote. She went on to say, “But what really bothered me was when Nutter fired the age-old salvo that has historically evoked head-hanging shame among black folks.”
Nutter said things that needed to be said, according to J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
“It’s like Cosby did. It’s like the president did when he was running for office,” Mondesire said. “Something is wrong in many African-American homes, and we’ve got to come to grips with it.”
Some have questioned Nutter’s support among blacks at the polls, where he has fared better in white wards. Black politicians have taken shots as well.
At a mayoral debate in 2007, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who is black, challenged his fellow candidate Nutter on the issue of race, suggesting Nutter has to “remind himself he’s an African-American.” Last year, former Mayor John F. Street, Nutter’s predecessor and longtime political adversary, told a newspaper that Nutter was “not a black mayor … just a mayor with dark skin.” Nutter called Street’s remarks “ignorant.”
Race has again risen to the foreground for Nutter in the wake of the mob assaults.
In one attack last month, a man ended up in the hospital with broken teeth and a wired jaw after a group of teenagers attacked him downtown. Hours later, a crowd of young people assaulted four other men. The city plans to increase legal sanctions for parents whose children participate in the attacks. Nutter has also said strict enforcement of a curfew will continue and more programs at youth centers will be offered.
For his part, the mayor said he felt he had no choice but to go to the pulpit Sunday, regardless of the reaction.
“This is about personal responsibility,” he told the AP. “We have to be very straightforward.”
Philadelphia’s first black district attorney, Seth Williams, also lauded the mayor for using his position as one of the city’s most visible leaders to confront a public problem.
“What he was saying was perfectly accurate. People need to hear that,” Williams said. “Call it for what it is.”