Mayor Jim Kenney admonished anyone who would make assumptions behind city Managing Director Brian Abernathy’s resignation on Tuesday, saying “any other speculation is not accurate.”
It was a “mutual decision,” said Kenney, and “this seemed to be the best path for him.”
But Abernathy, in a lengthy explanation to reporters when questioned about his sudden departure, offered an age-old euphemism used when higher-ups are pushed out of office: He wants to spend more time with his family, calling the last few months “incredibly challenging.”
Tuesday dropped a triple-news-bomb on Philadelphia residents: Abernathy was stepping down, the city was placing a moratorium on special events and public gatherings through the end of February 2021 and three class-action lawsuits were filed against the city over the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters who halted traffic on the Vine Street Expressway last month.
The lawsuits, filed on behalf of more than 140 individuals represented by local attorneys, the Abolitionist Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, accuse police of indiscriminate use of force against peaceful protesters during demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
For weeks, Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw have apologized for using tear gas and rubber bullets on a crowd of about 200 on June 1. Cell phone video captured scenes of stranded protestors crawling up a steep embankment on the highway and then attempting to scale a fence to escape.
Kenney said Tuesday that he, Abernathy, Outlaw and several others across city government had approved the use of tear gas and rubber bullets the day before the incident on I-676. The specific deployment of those munitions, though, was authorized by police commanders on the ground that day.
“It is what it is, and we will review how we reacted and what was wrong,” the mayor said.
Kenney did defend Philadelphia’s depleted police forces: “The one thing I will say is we have 6,300 or so sworn officers. What went on those two days or nights was an amazing thing that caught everybody by surprise… The level of anger and explosion that took place – we’ve never had enough police” to deal with such unrest.
“From the armchair Monday morning, it’s easy to criticize. This was real-time stuff and life and death decisions and we did our best.”
In contrast, Philadelphia’s top cop — U.S. Attorney William McSwain — called out the Kenney administration for failures early on.
“[An] important message that the city should be pushing – but conspicuously has not – is that the protestors should not be taking over major highways. Such behavior is extremely dangerous — both for protesters and motorists alike. It also makes travel more difficult for first responders who need to move throughout the city, thereby putting even more lives at risk.”
In early June, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, a top city official who has clashed with the Kenney administration on numerous occasions, began an independent review of the city’s resource deployment and tactics during the civil unrest. In a letter to the mayor, she wrote that, while this period has been “particularly trying with these protests layered on top of the pandemic…it is particularly important to make sure city dollars are being used in the best interest of the taxpayer. Over the last few days, questions have been raised about the City’s preparation for and response to the protests, and the unrest that followed.”
The city, and the residents that make up its tax base, may now be on the hook for millions in damages depending on the outcome of the newly-launched lawsuits.
Although there is no requirement for participants in protests or marches to alert city officials of their start or end point, Kenney said it’s a courtesy many do so that when groups of 500 multiply into the thousands, police can assist them along their course.
“It’s our preference to keep people safe that they tell us what their route is. There were some instances during the course of the month – long protests – where a group of 500 in one location would not tell us their route…When they’re moving, it’s hard to block traffic so that people aren’t in harm’s way.”
For his part, Abernathy said it was not just Philadelphia, but city officials across the country underestimated the degree of passion and outrage that would unfurl on May 30 and 31.
“I don’t think that I was alone,” he said.
In addressing reporters Tuesday, he said he was proud of his work managing the city of Philadelphia and would be leaving “with my head high.”
Asked about a replacement for his job, Abernathy said he would like to see an African-American woman fill the position.
“It’s time for other voices to be heard at the table, to have additional diversity and additional perspectives. I think it is important for this city to turn the corner. We have deep racial divides here. I am painfully aware of that.”
Jenny DeHuff has been a multimedia journalist for the past 15 years in Philadelphia. Her bylines include the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Playboy Magazine, The Morning Call, and Philly Voice. She’s won multiple awards for investigative journalism. @RuffTuffDH