BLM Protest Highlights Racism At The Philadelphia Mummers Parade

January 4, 2016  |  

Black Lives Matter Mummers parade

AP Images

Two activists were arrested last Friday during a protest aimed at disrupting the annual Mummers Parade, which took place in Philadelphia on New Year’s day.

According to the Facebook page listed for the event, the protests were part of ongoing actions organized by The Philly Coalition for REAL Justice. Organizers were hoping to use the local parade, known nationally for its colorful costumes and elaborate floats, to highlight police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the need to end the deportation of illegal immigrants, raise the minimum wage and provide more adequate funding for public schools in Philadelphia.

But as the couple of dozen or so activists made their ways down the parade route they were immediately met by a wall of officers, dressed in blue, who, according to various witnesses, harassed and blocked their protests.

When it was all said and done, Asa Khalif and Philadelphia school teacher Megan Malachi, who are also members of the Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L Justice, were handcuffed and detained for disrupting the parade. Also temporarily detained was a local reporter.

“We couldn’t really go out into the parade because of the barriers,” said Nichole Maxwell, a local activists who was a part of Mummers protest action. “Plus everywhere we went the police were right there. So there wasn’t even the opportunity to walk out into the parade.”

The protest was the final nail in what was supposed to be a novel year of diversity for the annual parade now in its 116th year of existence.

According to the Philadelphia Metro, two Hispanic groups, an African American drill team and “drag queens in heels” would be strutting for the first time in the country’s oldest folk festival.

But what started out with good intentions, strutted quickly down that path to Hell.

First there were “concerns” raised by some Mummers traditionalists on social media prior to the parade about its new emphasis on diversity and the impact that diversity would have on the Mummers culture. In particular one brigade member told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “They’re creating a tradition that’s not really our tradition.”

Then there were reports of racial and anti-gay intimidation during the parade including one spectator who told the Inquirer that he was punched in the face and called homophobic slurs. Then there was the questionable use of brown face and taco-dressed people during one of the parade’s performances.

And finally a viral video, which features members of the “Wenches” of Finnegan Brigade waving signs that mocked Caitlyn Jenner while Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady” played in the background. Also in the video, a member of the Wenches could be seen yelling “F— the gays!” at parade spectators.

Maxwell said that she is not at all surprised by the reports. In addition to the police she said that protestors also had to face down slurs and even flying cans and garbage from some of the parade’s more spirited spectators. Those incidents, she said, were mostly ignored by the police.

“This is why we wanted to be out here. This is what the Mummers represents. You don’t just have the regular white racists, you have the South Philly racists. You know, people who are deeply entrenched and comfortable in their racism,” she said.

To understand Maxwell’s point further is to understand the history of the parade itself, which is rooted in a predominately Italian and Irish, low-income part of the city. As noted in this 2013 article from the Philadelphia City Paper:

The history of the Mummers, particularly the comic brigades, is entwined with the blackface minstrelry popular in the mid- to late 1800s. But the roots go back further, before South Philadelphia was even officially part of Philadelphia. It was a poor satellite town of immigrant laborers and free blacks, and its poorest neighborhood was a swampy, near-rural shantytown known for its garbage-fed pig herds. This was the Neck — the birthplace of Mummery.

The early history of the Mummers is inexact, says Christian DuComb — who teaches theater at Colgate University, wrote his doctoral thesis on racial impersonation in the Mummers and until recently was a member of the Vaudevillains NYB club — because nobody wrote it down. “Most of the Mummers’ own history is oral; it’s a working-class tradition, and the working class hasn’t always had the resources to write its own history.”

While the early days are fuzzy, one thing’s clear: In the 1830s, rowdy bands of proto-Mummers shooting guns off like Yosemite Sam started showing up at holiday time in arrest records and in the diaries of irritated rich people in Philadelphia proper, the area now called Center City.”

Blackface was banned from the parade in 1964. However many critics say that the attitudes behind the practice are still very much part of the festivities. For instance, the B. Love Strutters were criticized in 2009 for its anti-immigration theme Mummers performance, which featured strutters dressed as “illegals” dancing around President Barack Obama as he held up a sign that read “Illegal Aliens Allowed.” The performance also featured Geno’s Steaks owner Joey Vento who mocked the national attention he received for his “When Ordering ‘Speak English’” sign that used to hang prominently outside of his shop.

And in 2013, the parade was again criticized for allowing the Ferko String Band to perform a tribute to Blackface performer Al Jolson entitled “Bring Back the Minstrel Days.” Although the performers forwent the burnt cork, it did include props of “four large, big-lipped, wide-grinning, top-hatted prop heads.”

In a statement released over the weekend, the five presidents from the traditional Mummers Division condemned the “hate and bigotry” and said that those who were involved would be banned from participating in future parades. The presidents also wrote: “For any ethnic theme performed by a club, it will be required that the club have as advisors and/or participants members of that ethnicity to guarantee respect. These names will be made available to Division President, and to the media upon request.”

It’s definitely a sign of progress for a parade that is desperately trying to rebrand and maintain its relevancy in a city that is rapidly changing and weary of such outward examples of intolerance.

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