While some things changed in 2021, more than a few things didn’t. And if this year is any indication, we may be stuck with them.
By Denise Clay-Murray
To get a real sense of 2021 and how much of the craziness of 2020 seemed to carry over, I am, as I write this, getting over a nasty bout of COVID-19. I’m fully vaccinated and wear my mask whenever I leave the house.
And yet, because America is filled with people who think that (a) your “superior immune system” is all you need to protect yourself from COVID, (b) A tracking device will be installed in your bloodstream if you get the vaccine and (c) that it makes more sense to get a false vaccine card for hundreds of dollars than it does to get the FREE vaccine itself, I spent Christmas Day feeling like a small child was sitting on my chest.
(And that kid was heavy, I’m telling you!)
Were I not vaccinated, my guess is that the omicron variant, which doesn’t take away your sense of taste and smell at least, would have hit my husband Chris and I much harder than it did. But it hit hard enough. As has the misinformation that’s gotten us to a point where 2022 is going to mark the 3rd. Anniversary of the world’s relationship with COVID-19.
(Should we start changing years at this point? It’s a question we’ve got to ask.) We were all hoping that by New Year’s 2022, we’d be able to go to dinner with friends to celebrate, we could fill movie theaters without the fear of “Spider Man: No Way Home” becoming a super spreader event, and we could otherwise see a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the vaccines provided by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson.
But the unvaccinated seem pretty determined to keep us from being great. While the year began and ended with COVID, it wasn’t the only thing in 2021 that hung around like a bad penny that refused to leave.
You still have people, many of whom are unvaccinated by the way, that believe that Joe Biden isn’t actually the president of the United States despite his sizable victory over Donald Trump. Many of those same people came to Washington in January to try and make sure that Biden’s election wasn’t certified by Congress by storming the Capital Building and doing the kinds of things that would have gotten Black Lives Matter protesters shot in bunches.
As I write this, more than 550 Philadelphians have lost their lives due to gun violence. This breaks a record that was set in 1990, and the year isn’t quite over yet. During the city’s budget negotiations, City Council managed to get $155 million from Mayor Jim Kenney to attack this problem… but getting it a second year is anybody’s guess.
Hurricane Ida turned the Schuylkill Expressway into one of the nation’s largest swimming pools. People around the country looked aghast as yet another example of what happens when you don’t take climate change seriously led to water pumps being where cars usually are.
John Dougherty, one of the most powerful men in Pennsylvania politics, is now headed off to jail after being convicted, along with City Councilmember Bobby Henon, of a variety of federal offenses including bribery and using credit cards designed to help out of work union members to buy cashmere sweaters and lots and lots of Lucky Charms.
(Well, they are Magically Delicious!”)
And, whether we want to admit it or not, the race to see who becomes Philadelphia’s next mayor started this year. Or were you surprised to hear the phrase “Philly Special” outside of a discussion of the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl win.
So, as I try not to cough up a lung in the process, here are the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absolutely ridiculous things that happened in 2021.
Drink ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!
‘Rona sticks around
Admittedly, the main thing that many of us were looking forward to in 2021 was getting out of the house.
From March 2020 until the first vaccines started being administered in March 2021, the moment when we could get out of the house to visit friends and family, go see a concert or a movie or grab a stack of blueberry pancakes without having to be outside was something we were looking forward to.
There are even vaccines for children.
But there still appears to be a disconnect between what Americans need to do to be able to roam around freely like our friends in places like New Zealand and what they’re willing to do. President Joe Biden attempted a nationwide vaccination mandate, but it was struck down in federal court before it was supposed to be enacted. Meanwhile, many of the businesses that were angry about the prospect of the mandate are finding it hard to re-open because workers are hard to find.
According to the Philadelphia Health Department, 71.4% of all Philadelphians are fully vaccinated and 97.2% have at least one dose of a vaccine. But over the last two weeks, the city has started seeing an average of 1,462 new cases of the coronavirus. Part of this is due to the omicron variant. Unlike some of the other manifestations of COVID, omicron doesn’t impact your sense of taste or smell in most cases, but it is particularly infectious. Another reason might be that there are people out there that not only refuse to be vaccinated but have gone so far as to get fake vaccine cards so that they can go into indoor venues that require proof of vaccination.
Now, beginning in January, if you work or play in any indoor venue in Philadelphia, you’re going to have to provide proof of vaccination. It’ll be interesting to see what safeguards the city puts in place to make sure the cards are real.
But not everything that happened in Philadelphia when it came to COVID was bad news.
In 2021, Dr. Ala Stanford and the Black Doctors Coalition opened a clinic in North Philadelphia to further address the healthcare inequities that showed themselves when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She was also honored by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and as a CNN Hero for her work.
Maybe we should be looking for a anti-violence equivalent of Dr. Stanford to help us deal with the other raging pandemic we’re still dealing with.
Stop the violence
Until a few weeks ago, Philadelphians hadn’t heard much from former Mayor Michael Nutter in a long time.
With the possible exception of city events requiring the City’s former leaders to be in the same room —- I still remember former Mayor John Street leaving Jim Kenney’s inauguration to avoid taking a group photo — we were more likely to see Nutter sharing his political insights on CNN or doing the occasional gathering like the Philadelphia Citizen’s “Ideas We Should Steal” festival. But as the city’s murder rate started to get closer to 500, we started hearing more and more from the former Mayor, much of it aimed at District Attorney Larry Krasner. To say that Nutter and Krasner have different ideas about how this problem should be handled is, perhaps, the understatement of the decade.
That said, the solution doesn’t seem to be within anyone else’s reach either. For the second year in a row, Philadelphians have had to watch in horror as the city’s murder rate continues to climb. More than 2,000 city residents have been shot and more than 550 of them — including a pregnant woman returning from her baby shower — have died.
While Nutter’s solution to the gun violence problem as mayor seemed to focus more on such things as stop and frisk, City Council’s focus appeared to be on putting money toward such things as anti-poverty programs, ($400 million) community groups with an anti-violence focus and investment in things like libraries, recreation centers and other things that present an alternative to crime for young people.
While Mayor Kenney only wanted to put $18 million additional dollars toward anti-violence efforts, a full-court press from Council led to $155 million being allotted toward the programs, with $22 million going toward community organizations. One of the things that the community organization money includes is oversight to help these organizations expand successful programs designed to deal with things like trauma counseling, witness relocation and other things needed to make communities safer.
Meanwhile, the fault finding will continue, especially since 2023 is an election year…and the campaign for Mayor of Philadelphia actually begins in 2022.
The end of one era…and the beginning of a new one
Here’s a bit of Pennsylvania campaign financing trivia.
One of the biggest contributors to Pennsylvania’s election coffers be they state, local or national, is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Or, as we know them better around here in Philadelphia, Local 98.
While the union will probably still make its financial presence known as the mayoral race and the 2022 governors and Senate races move through, they’ll be doing so without a familiar face handing out the checks. In December, former Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty was convicted of a laundry list of offenses including bribery of a public official.
The public official in question is City Councilmember Bobby Henon, who was also convicted and will be resigning from Council when he’s sentenced later this year.
In addition to being the business manager for Local 98, Dougherty was also the longtime head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, a seat that he also resigned. The new occupant of that seat is Ryan Boyer, the business manager for Laborers Local 332. He becomes the first Black person to hold that seat. The SUN hopes to talk with him in the New Year about what his vision is for the Building Trades.
On a MOVE…
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, details of Philadelphia’s response to the problem and how Mayor Jim Kenney’s office was handling it from a healthcare perspective came from Dr. Thomas Farley, the City’s Health Commissioner. Dr. Farley was a pretty smart man, but he did some pretty dumb things. The first dumb thing was giving a contract for COVID vaccinations to a group of college bros who not only had no experience in how to do it, but also gave vaccines to their friends at parties.
But the second pretty dumb and callous thing he did — the thing that ultimately cost him his job — was to find the unclaimed remains of MOVE members killed in the group’s May 13, 1985, confrontation with police and order them disposed of instead of trying to locate next of kin. The remains were discovered on the 36th anniversary of the confrontation.
This was the second group of MOVE remains that had been found somewhere they shouldn’t have been in 2021.
In April 2021, it was discovered that the University of Pennsylvania had been using the unclaimed remains of MOVE members as part of the university’s anthropology research.
The University and the City have since apologized.
Every Tuesday, a group of committed activists gather at U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s office to try and get a meeting with him to talk about, well, anything.
Tuesdays with Toomey was a way for these activists to let the world know what their senator didn’t appear to want to hear: Philadelphia has problems, and we’d really like for you to sit down with us and talk about them. In response, Toomey moved to a more secure building instead of addressing the activists. This year, Toomey announced that these activists would have to find someone else to protest, because he wasn’t running for re-election. He only promised the Commonwealth two terms, so he’s being a man of his word.
But the minute he made the announcement, the people who wanted to sit in his seat in Congress, a seat that’s been made more important by the current 50-50 split in the Senate, potential candidates, came out of the woodwork.
Among the folks you might know on the Democratic side, you have Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Congressman Conor Lamb, Dr. Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and State Sen. Sharif Street.
On the Republican side, you have Kathy Barnett and Jeff Bartos, businesspeople from Montgomery County, Sean Gale, another Montco guy whose older brother Joe is a Montgomery Council Commissioner who will be trying to take on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, and last, but not least Dr. Mehmet Oz.
No, I’m not kidding. THAT Dr. Oz. Despite there being some questions about whether he actually lives in Pennsylvania, the celebrity doctor believes he can become our next senator.
I wonder if we’ll get a campaign appearance from Oprah…or has she done enough in this case…
Those who left us….
On Wednesday, it was announced that Jeff Guaracino, CEO of Visit Philadelphia had lost his battle with cancer. He was 48.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who used his ministry to not only change his country, but also the world, died earlier this week, also of cancer. He was 90.
Whether it was a soul food lunch at his namesake stand in the Reading Terminal Market or dinner for two at his South Street restaurant, Miss Tootsie’s, you were guaranteed some of the best food — and definitely the best iced tea — when you dined with KeVen Parker. He lost his battle with cancer in January. He was 57.
If you visited Warmdaddy’s, the jazz and blues restaurant that was located on Delaware Avenue until recently, chances are that you met Benjamin Bynum Sr., the patriarch of the Bynum restaurant family. He was an entrepreneur who brought some of the best musical acts of the day to the Cadillac Club in the 60s and gave former Mayor Michael Nutter a job as a DJ at the Impulse Night Club in the 70s. He died in October. He was 90.
As Secretary of State and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell was someone who had tried his best to do good despite it being done for questionable people. He was lost due to complications from COVID. He was 84.
Ali Salahuddin wanted Philadelphia’s young Black community to know more about its culture. Toward that end, he and his wife Helen founded the African Genesis Institute and the D’Zert Club, which took children and adults to the Motherland to learn more about the culture. He died in July at 74. When I was a student at Temple University in the 1990s, all of my friends who were interested in African dance tried to find themselves a slot in one of the classes taught by Kariamu Welsh. Professor Welsh developed the technique Umfundalai, or “essence,” which was inspired by a combination of dance traditions from the African Diaspora and a bit of the Double Dutch that she was inspired by as a child in Brooklyn. She died in November at 72.
Cicely Tyson was the epitome of grace in all of the roles she played, even the ones that involved really bad Tyler Perry movies. She was 96.
There were parts of 2021 that weren’t all that great, admittedly.
But try as it might, the combination of COVID and stupidity couldn’t stop everything good that could go on in Philadelphia.
For example, back in December 2019, Philadelphia City Council voted to name the 6600 Block of Germantown Avenue after the SUN’s late founder and publisher, J. Whyatt Mondesire.
In addition to being the publisher of the SUN, Mondesire was the president of the Philadelphia NAACP during a time when it was most active. One of the people most often at his side when he did his work for the NAACP was Catherine Hicks, the SUN’s current publisher.
This year, Hicks became president of the branch, and she’s spent much of her time in the position trying to help the city end the current cycle of gun violence.
That’s something that Mondesire definitely would have approved of.
COVID kept the street naming ceremony from happening in 2020, but on a sunny Saturday in October 2021, the block that housed the newspaper Mondesire created to inform and empower the public became J. Whyatt Mondesire Way.
There was also one thing that happened for me personally that kind of stands out.
Today, SUN sports writer Chris Murray and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary.
We got married at the Mother Bethel AME Church in Center City and because it was during the time in the pandemic where you couldn’t really go anywhere, it was a small ceremony that most of our friends watched on video. We finally got to have our wedding reception in November, just before omicron became a part of our lives.
I bring these things up because if the end of 2021 is any indication, 2022 is going to require all of us to find something to look forward to.
Find whatever that something is, and don’t look away, even for a second.
Happy New Year!