Jay A. McCalla
It’s comforting to know my physician, like all physicians, took the Hippocratic Oath upon commencing his medical career. The initial promise under that oath – primum non nocere – “first, do no harm,” makes a lot of sense to me. Don’t make things worse. Watch out for unintended consequences. Whatever you do, “do no harm.”
A few years back, Councilperson-at-Large Blondell Reynolds Brown amended the Traffic Code to ban the use of all-terrain vehicles from city streets and permit their immediate confiscation under certain conditions.
However wise the intent, the “immediate confiscation” provision ignited many ugly, violent conflicts between our cops and the teens who paid $500 or more for their vehicles. The fact that teens would almost naturally, perhaps aggressively, resist confiscation was never considered.
This bill handed one more rotten chore to our cops, who may not have been trained in the tactful art of confiscating a teen’s hard-earned and prized possession. Needlessly, Reynolds-Brown pitted our cops against rambunctious young people and the result was often frightful. She did harm.
This brings me to Cindy Bass, Councilperson for the 8th District, who seeks to amend the rules that govern the “Stop & Go” businesses.
It’s an important fact in our city that many small neighborhood retailers and service providers are ethnically aligned. Dry cleaning and shoe repair is dominated by Asians, Neighborhood grocery stores in lower income areas are often operated by Hispanics. Stop & Go’s are often operated by Koreans. These are the facts.
So, when Bass introduces legislation that plainly and only impacts Stop & Go’s, she’s already stepping out onto thin ice. She risks exacerbating cultural tensions that exist between the Korean proprietors and some in the black community they serve.
Bass wants these stores to remove the very thick protective plexiglass that separates the cashier from the customers. Many black patrons have long seen these barriers as offensive and disrespectful to their communities and Bass has caught that wave. Her legislation amounts to a cultural grievance.
Completely unconsidered is whether or not shopkeepers have a basic right to secure their safety in reasonable ways. The bill doesn’t address jewelry stores or check-cashing businesses that require customers be “buzzed in.” It doesn’t address the thick barriers in taxi cabs that separate driver from customer. Unaddressed are the many prominent fast-food restaurants with thick protective plexiglass. These things are obviously done solely for the safety of workers who interact with the public, and Bass does not object at all. She only objects when Stop & Go’s do it and that’s what makes her bill uncomfortable – perhaps, even bigoted.
There was a time when black politicians had an intrinsic moral authority to their rhetoric and actions. Historically, they fought injustice and sought to create equality. The fact that Bass is targeting an ethnic group for special sanction turns that history on its head.
Bass is targeting these Korean businesses in a way she may deeply regret. If her bill passes and plexiglass is removed, she will “own” the first murder of a cashier. She will own all subsequent murders.
The plexiglass is obnoxious, but it’s what the operators feel they need in a high-crime area. Without that, Stop & Go owners may choose to not operate in lower income, black communities.
The black-owned “corner store” doesn’t exist anymore. Major supermarkets have long abandoned the inner- city. If certain poor neighborhoods are currently “food deserts,” what will happen if Stop & Go’s pull out?
Bass seems willing to risk a series of foreseeably bad consequences to press her cultural grievance, and that can’t be good for anybody. It may win her the votes of those whose ax she is grinding, but it represents a setback for cross-cultural relationships and opportunities.
Fortunately, this drama will play out publicly at City Council. Expect angry blacks talking about “respect” and frustrated Koreans talking about safety. Likely, they will not hear each other and there’s no one to moderate because Bass has chosen sides. It won’t be pretty, but it will be instructive.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.