Archer shooting political (2)
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Religion, guns and the West Philly cop shooting: Analysis of an echo chamber in an election year

It’s not Pope Francis or the DNC that put Philly in a spotlight this time — Mayor Kenney’s first crisis has everything to do with a neighborhood and its issues.

Late on the Friday afternoon after the shooting in West Philadelphia involving Islam and a police officer, a national NBC reporter sent out two tweets about shots being fired in the city.

And that was it from Kate Snow. No mention of where they came from, whether they hit anyone, whether police were investigating or if they were actually fireworks (which is most definitely a real thing here). Just, shots fired.

As anybody who has lived in Philadelphia or any large American city should know, “shots” aren’t unusual. Philly police receive about 130 reports of possible weapon threats each day, which totals out to nearly 50,000 per year. Most lead to nothing. A small fraction (but still too many) end with someone being shot. That number, according to data compiled by GunCrisis.org, can hit 100 per month, or up to three times per day. Few lead to more than a cursory headline.

And then there was the shooting involving officer Jesse Hartnett, which stretches news cycles and makes seemingly everyone, from a GOP-loving comedian to an indicted congressmen, insert themselves into the story.

That’s what we’ve seen in Philadelphia for the last 10 days. The spotlight city leaders sought for the pope and the DNC hit because this one incident out of hundreds combined the magic formula that makes CNN bring up the Brady Bunch display of eight talking heads at the same time: Religion and guns. To top it off, this is an election year, ensuring the political grandstanding will be on point.

The moment this incident became a story mattering both to people who read Breitbart and people who read The Nation and everyone in between happened early the morning after Hartnett got shot. Hours before anyone else in town, CBS3 reported that alleged gunman Edward Archer confessed he shot the officer in the name of Islam. Police confirmed this later in the afternoon along with the details that Archer believed police defended laws contrary to the Quran and pledged allegiance to ISIS. It was later revealed Archer had taken two trips to the Middle East, one for a Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and another in Egypt.

Jim Kenney, who was always known for off-the-cuff remarks as a Councilman, said the shooting “had nothing to do with” Islam immediately after police said Archer confessed to doing it in the name of Islam. Kenney was four days into his job at this point. As he clarified later, Kenney said he meant Archer’s actions were not representative of Philly’s Muslims, but plenty of people did not interpret them that way. By the end of his second week as Mayor, he had been called an imam — a leader of a mosque — twice in the Daily News. Rush Limbaugh and Dennis Miller weighed in. No matter how many times political peers told Kenney to be prepared for anything as mayor, he probably didn’t see any of that coming.

While Kenney tried to reject any connections to Islam, he was tying the shooting into another hot-button issue. He said at the same press conference, “There are just too many guns on the streets, and I think our national government needs to do something about that.” President Barack Obama had earlier in the week introduced an executive order on gun control that mostly focused on increased background checks. 

So with Islam and gun control out in the open, it was only a matter of time before the politicians swooped in. Marco Rubio, during a South Carolina town hall referred to the shooting as a terrorist attack and chastised Kenney — though not by name — for his “nothing to do with Islam” comments. Senator Pat Toomey, who’s trying very hard to win votes from the same base as Rubio, came to Philadelphia on Thursday to say that we had just seen a radical Islamist terrorist act, just like in San Bernardino. Senator Bob Casey, who was briefed by the FBI at the same time as Toomey, came away with the opposite reaction. He said at a press conference Archer was a “lone wolf,” just like the attackers in San Bernardino.

Unlike the rush to pronounce the shooting terrorism, the gun control issue mostly stayed local. Council President Darrell Clarke released a lengthy statement featuring one paragraph expressing gratitude for Hartnett and the Philadelphia Police Department. He spent three paragraphs on guns and how officials at every level of government need to figure out how to “keep Americans safe.”

When Clarke released his statement and when Kenney made his comment about the national government and guns, they both knew about Archer’s weapon. It had been stolen from police and reported as stolen. Nothing pushed forward by Obama or anything prominent national Democrats have discussed would have pinpointed the stolen gun. Barring the near impossibility of a national edict forcing all guns to be fitted with tracking devices — they do exist — there was really no way to keep this particular gun off the street.

The FBI is investigating the incident as a terrorist attack, but the agency has so far found nothing to suggest Archer had connections to any terror group. Toomey even admitted the latter in his Philadelphia press conference. Archer’s mother downplayed any connections between Islam and the shooting, but said her son had been hearing voices and fearing police were targeting him.  

So the supposed act of terror may have been committed by a troubled man relatives thought needed psychiatric help and has no discernible connections to ISIS. And the gun he used couldn’t have been flagged under anything related to national efforts with gun control. Religion and guns seem less like the prevailing issues in the Archer shooting than two key points of Kenney’s campaign.

In his inauguration address two weeks ago, Kenney stressed criminal justice reform. His office and several other city organizations then announced on January 7 a MacArthur Grant proposal containing a plan to reduce Philly’s jail population by 34 percent. Archer exemplifies why this reform can be such a thorny issue. He received a light sentence for a weapons offense in 2015. Archer got time served and probation and was immediately paroled. As a result, he was on the streets of West Philly the night he allegedly shot Hartnett.

Perhaps the resounding feature of Kenney’s campaign was the way he positioned himself as a yin to Michael Nutter’s ‘destination city’ yang. He said he wanted to be a neighborhoods mayor.

This shooting, unless the FBI or police reveal otherwise, is a neighborhood issue. Ask anyone who packed into a school on Cedar Avenue Thursday night to talk about what happened. They aren’t concerned with Islam; many of the neighborhood’s elderly residents find themselves reticent to leave their houses at night. They want to know why the police who patrol University City on bike don’t seem to cover their neighborhood. They find it odd how, for many, the first time politicians, the police or the media cared about their neighborhood was when an officer was shot in the middle of the night, and not the 13 other times a shooting occurred around the 60th Street corridor during the previous six months.

Given statistics like that, it’s clear a disproportionate number of shots are being fired in this area of West Philly and why when a national news reporter tweets about shots there the justifiable reaction is, “which ones?”   

Kenney ran on a promise to improve longstanding problems like these. Thanks to people like Rubio and Casey, his own comments and all the ways this shooting captured the nation’s attention, many more people will be watching to see whether he can do it.

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