With Trump around the corner, Philly City Council claps back

“We want everybody in Philadelphia to know that nothing has changed, and we are still here to protect you.”

Salima Suswell, a Muslim American actvisit, speaks at City Hall outside council.

Salima Suswell, a Muslim American actvisit, speaks at City Hall outside council.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Salima Suswell was in the middle of standing at a lectern, asking Philadelphians to support the Muslim American community in the city. And then she was interrupted.

“We’re here!” yelled a woman who was standing in a sea of dozens of people, some of whom were silently holding signs that read “Stop Profiling Muslims.”

“I ask that you all continue to stand in solidarity with the Muslim-American community in Philadelphia,” Suswell, a Muslim American community leader in Philadelphia, said, “against social injustice, hate speech, hate crimes and vicious rhetoric that influences and ignites turmoil in this society.”

Suswell was standing among government officials and progressive activists on the fourth floor of City Hall this morning where Councilwoman Helen Gym was unveiling an “anti-Islamophobia” resolution that aims to uphold “Philadelphia’s support for and protection of Muslim communities.” It specifically notes that Council rejects “political tactics that use fear to manipulate voters or to gain power or influence.” Gym told reporters that Council will pass the resolution Thursday.

But it was the timing of the action in City Hall that was most telling. At noon, President Donald Trump will brief Republican colleagues on his policy agenda at the Loews Hotel — about a block away from where Philly’s council members are taking a public stand against Trump and his policies.

On Wednesday, Trump told the Department of Homeland Security of his plans to reform immigration, and The New York Times reported on a draft executive order he could sign as early as today that would bar Syrian refugees from entering the country and suspend immigration from countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

The public display of a lack of faith in Trump puts Philadelphia even more at odds with the president, who just signed an executive order aimed at cutting federal funding because of policies the city says are in place to protect undocumented immigrants.

It’s the start of punishing Philadelphia, New York and Chicago — places that refuse to turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds unless they were convicted of a violent crime — by withdrawing federal funding. The order itself details an exception that says the city can’t lose out on funding it must receive by law.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who signed his own executive order on his first day in office last year returning Philadelphia to its sanctuary city status, quickly released a statement saying the city has no plans to change its immigration policy “given that today’s EO was simply a directive and did not even make clear if there were any significant funding streams that the Trump administration could cut off to Philadelphia.”

But Thursday’s action by council members was focused on standing with Muslim Americans, specifically. Longtime Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the city’s only Muslim elected official, slammed the president’s actions and said there will be “a resistance to demagoguery.”

“You will not intimidate us,” he said. “You will not starve us financially with your taking of our funding from the federal government. Our liberty is not negotiable. It is not purchasable.”

Activists gather at City Hall in support of the Muslim American community.

Activists gather at City Hall in support of the Muslim American community.

Community leaders have estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 practicing Muslims call Philadelphia home. That’s more than 10 percent of the city’s overall population. Still, the city’s had its share of discrimination, the most notable of which was when a severed pig’s head was left outside a Philadelphia mosque in December 2015.

Rue Landau, the executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, said her office has recently seen an uptick in hate crimes and hate speech directed toward Muslims and other minority communities following a national trend since Trump was elected in November. She urged anyone who experiences discrimination or hate to contact her office.

“This is absolutely a struggle for all of us and we know that discrimination against any of us is discrimination against all of us,” she said. “We want everybody in Philadelphia to know that nothing has changed, and we are still here to protect you.”

Imam Kenneth Nurridin, a board member with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, said government policies can stoke fear, but he called on other Muslims to help “enlighten” the community on their commitment to peace.

“We have an obligation to help to enlighten and bring this story out into the open,” he said, “so that we can either hang together or hang separately.”

Philadelphia has a handful of organizations that work to bring together minority communities and fight for the civil rights of Muslim Americans. One of them is the Philadelphia chapter of CAIR, or the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The group’s executive director Jacob Bender, the first non-Muslim leader of the organization, said tough times for Muslim Americans may be ahead — but that doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way.

“This is a time that we can only survive throughout by coming together and overcoming our differences and forming coalitions of the just and the righteous,” Bender said, “and we will bring, eventually, peace once again to our country.”

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