Voices | Aug. 13-20

Reactions, rants and other random musings from you, our readers

As schools look to go digital for the foreseeable future and more learning across the board will be virtual, the bandwidth needs to match the need. For many, that’s where communications giant Comcast comes in. | Image Annie Spratt

City’s plan doesn’t close digital divide

The City of Philadelphia recently announced its plan to get every student online ahead of online instruction scheduled to begin this fall. In the face of extraordinary pressure from parents, educators, and community members, this shows that the City of Philadelphia is beginning to listen to our voices as we demand the internet is a human right, especially for our children as they face a fully online return to school in this pandemic.

The City’s partnership with Comcast, an integral feature to the plan, includes a sizable payment from Comcast’s philanthropic arm, the Comcast Foundation, to the Comcast Corporation to cover the costs of providing discount service “Internet Essentials” for the families of students who are not online. The City is also working with T-Mobile to provide mobile hotspots to transient students and in partnership with some of Philadelphia’s largest foundation partners, has committed to hiring new digital navigators, who will work to identify and assist students who need internet access..

While this plan is a notable win for Philly’s students, educators, and the community members who have been organizing and advocating to close the digital divide ahead of the upcoming school year, it is far from enough: 

  • Families still need Comcast to increase upload and download speeds for its Internet Essentials Program. Without this commitment, Comcast will fail to meet the needs of households with multiple students. Parents who are unemployed and looking for work will also struggle to access the internet while their children are receiving an online education. 
  • Educators, including paraprofessionals, should be included in this plan. Paraprofessionals, like assistant teachers, are underpaid and required to have internet access to perform their essential duties for the upcoming school year.  
  • Comcast must open its residential hotspots. Comcast is choosing profits over people by refusing to open its residential hot spots – something crucial for homeless, English-language learning, and transient students who can’t get Internet Essentials. While hotspots will help with some transient students, the district literally lost 1,000 students this spring. Some won’t be reached through this plan. Only by opening its network, so students can see open wifi they can use, will the majority of students be served in this urgent moment. Comcast claims that its network was not designed for public use, but it’s seen an 11,000 percent increase in usage of its public hotspots without negatively impacting service levels. 
  • Comcast should make more of a financial investment for internet access. In places like Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago, local officials are preparing to pay Comcast to get students online in preparation for the upcoming school year, despite school districts experiencing unprecedented budget deficits. In Philadelphia, while Comcast has donated $7 million, the city will still have to pay some in order for families to get the internet access they need, despite Comcast’s extraordinary wealth. Comcast should cover the vast majority of the costs in all  rural and city communities where it has a majority of the market share. 

For Black, brown, and poor communities across the country, Comcast’s greed is the root cause of the digital divide.This is a beginning, and we will continue to fight in our neighborhoods and in the halls of power demanding “internet for all” in every community.

– Devren Washington, Senior Policy Organizer at Movement Alliance Project and Coordinator of the Philly Tech Justice Coalition. 

No one is safe from the rampant gun violence plaguing Philadelphia’s streets. So what can be done? And who needs to take immediate action? | Image provided

The SHOUT Out

Philadelphia just experienced another violent weekend with at least 10 shootings reported Saturday and Sunday and 15 people shot, including teens and children.

Your turn: Is there anything that will stop gun violence? Who needs to step up and take action? Share your thoughts at voices@philadelphiaweekly.com.

Prioritize people, not petrochemical companies

In the midst of three intersecting crises – a health crisis, an economic crisis and a climate crisis – funding a polluting industry that damages people’s health and has been in a steady economic decline certainly isn’t a solution to which most people would jump. And yet, on July 14, that’s precisely the solution 163 Pennsylvania state representatives chose to support. HB732, the bill they passed, actively sets us back through giving over $670 million to the PA fracking and petrochemical industries over the next 26 years.

As a young person, I constantly face the anxiety of knowing how uncertain my future is. While our climate erodes, I feel as if I am strapped to a speeding train on unstable tracks; the drivers of that train – our representatives – frequently take wrong turns and drive at faster and faster speeds in the wrong direction, furthering us from our destination. 

The petrochemical industry is the largest consumer of energy in the world. They release huge amounts of polluting methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases – and hurt Pennsylvanians by distancing us from a renewable future. I was disappointed to see that my representative, Donna Bullock, voted the wrong way on this bill and prioritized companies such as Shell and Exxon, rather than the people living in her district. I hope that in the future, she can help get the train back on its tracks.

Asaf Lebovic | Philadelphia

Gerrymandering threatens most important civil right

As we get closer to Election Day 2020, we hear a lot about our political divide, the unbridgeable tribalism of left and right. At the same time, we’re also told that voters hold common ground views on a variety of issues. How can both be true?

The answer is gerrymandering. The general view is that gerrymandering advantages one political party over the other. But that misses the larger point. True representative democracy is a competition among ideas that live or die at the ballot box. 

There is no such competition if the outcome is already decided by rigged district maps. There are no fresh ideas if the first requirement is party loyalty. There’s no room for independent or third-party candidates if maps are drawn so all seats are safe seats. 

Another misconception is that gerrymandering affects only some races. But ballot access and the right to vote are controlled by state legislatures. That affects every election at every level.

Gerrymandered voting districts are the keystone of an interlocking structure for maintaining political power: the party that draws the maps makes the rules, appoints the committee chairs, and enacts campaign finance laws, all in secrecy, eventually wearying voters to the point  where they no longer see the value of participating.

But in this careful scheme something elemental, and in plain sight, was overlooked: Your state constitution.

This state-based argument is no longer an academic discussion. In the 2018 case League of Women Voters Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandered congressional districts, “clearly, plainly and palpably violate … the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The result: The maps were redrawn for the 2018 election, and Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation went from a lopsided 13 to five Republican majority, to a nine to nine delegation, reflecting the state’s evenly split electorate. 

In its ruling, the court said, “ . . . do not divide any county, city incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”

This is based on a simple truth found in all 50 state constitutions: The people have an individual right to vote, and a right to equal protection of the law. This is the basis of representative democracy, and the opposite of what gerrymandering does.

The ruling infuriated Pennsylvania’s legislative majority, which has embarked on a plan to gerrymander judicial voting districts.

State legislators in Pennsylvania (and all other states) swear an oath to uphold the state constitution. It is our job to remind them of their duty.

Robert Millman, Glenville, New York, whose film, Line in the Street, is about gerrymander reform efforts in Pennsylvania in 2017 and 2018.