City Council Passes Ethnic Intimidation Bill in Response to Cemetery Desecration

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Mayor Jim Kenney (center) signed the Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism bill into law on June 22. From left: Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Rabbi Joshua Waxman, Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, Adam Kessler, Rue Landau, Rabbi Yosef Goldman and Addie Lewis Klein. | Photo provided

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s ethnic intimidation bill, introduced after the vandalism of more than 100 headstones at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming in February, was signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney.

Per the Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism bill, which was signed June 22, “institutional vandalism is the intentional desecration” of objects. Fines will be applied to each individual act of vandalizing a headstone, grave marker or gravesite.

Johnson said he found the acts at Mount Carmel “totally unacceptable.”

“We should not be dealing with any forms of hate and discrimination. Those who engage in these types of acts are cowards,” he said.

He decided to amend the city ordinance that focuses on hate crimes. The new law now charges those responsible for desecrating or vandalizing headstones per headstone.

“Originally, if you desecrated a headstone inside of a cemetery, you will be charged one single count,” he explained. “My bill will make it so you will be charged for each individual headstone … to send a clear message that these hate crimes will not be tolerated.”

For just one headstone, the fine is $2,000. Upon a third successive violation, offenders can be imprisoned for up to 30 days.

In attendance at the bill signing were Councilman At-Large Derek Green; Addie Lewis Klein, community engagement director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council; Michael Alexander, director of regional affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in New York; Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations; Rabbi Yosef Goldman; Rabbi Solomon Isaacson; and Rabbi Joshua Waxman.

“[The signing] was also an opportunity for us as a city to stand together as a sign of solidarity and unity against all forms of hate,” Johnson added.

The ethnic intimidation bill was joined by Green’s similar bill relating to incidents of racism in the Gayborhood. It amends the fair practices ordinance, allowing the Commission on Human Relations to cease operations of a business in response to unlawful discrimination.

Johnson’s bill applies to all cemeteries within the city of Philadelphia.

Johnson, who is not Jewish, said he has a special affinity for his “Jewish brothers and sisters.” He visited Israel on an American Jewish Committee trip three years ago for AJC members and others from African-American and Jewish communities, and credited it with having a transformational impact on his life.

“First and foremost, I am an African-American, so I come from a history of activism and addressing issues of social justice,” he explained. “I believe that no human beings should be subjected to any part of hate or discrimination based upon their religious or ethnic identity.”

Johnson hopes the new law will decrease these types of incidents in the future.

“We’re living in a time right now under a presidency where people are becoming emboldened by some of the hateful rhetoric that they may hear,” he said, “so it’s important to step up when we see any types of hate taking form.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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