Posted on October 23, 2018

Racial Tension Divides Pa. Town After First Black, Gay Mayor Is Elected

Erin Mccarthy, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 22, 2018


Since [Mark] Barbee took over in January as the first African-American and the first openly gay mayor of a town in suburban Philadelphia where nearly 80 percent of the residents are white, council meetings have devolved into heated arguments, the police chief has quit, two council members have resigned, and Mr. Barbee has received death threats on social media. By all accounts, the borough is divided.

Barbee and his supporters say Bridgeport needs to fight racism and prevent its spread.

“Race is a very polarizing issue, and a lot of people tend to lean out when you even say the word,” said Mr. Barbee, 29. “But this is a conversation that we as a town have to have.”

Others say racism was not a pervasive issue in town — until Mr. Barbee brought it up.

“Bridgeport was always all-inclusive,” said Borough Council President John Pizza, 74, a lifelong resident. “We never picked on anybody. … To me, that was the charm.”

Mr. Barbee’s critics say their complaints have nothing to do with the mayor’s race or sexual orientation. They say they simply disagree with him on policy and approach.


Mr. Barbee said: “The national political climate is absolutely accountable for what is happening. I think Bridgeport is often a microcosm of what’s going on nationally.”


In Bridgeport, the discord began in the spring when Mr. Barbee proposed an anti-discrimination ordinance, already adopted by other Montgomery County towns. The measure passed the council 4-3 but not before stirring up contentions about race, the mayor said.

A month later, in May, Police Chief Mark Shannon announced his resignation, effective in August. Chief Shannon, a longtime Norristown police veteran, had been in the position for only a few months. In a statement at the time, Chief Shannon said Mr. Barbee had overstepped his bounds by not allowing him to run the department as he saw fit. His departure was the third time in three years that a borough police chief had left the department.


Mr. Barbee said he believed that Chief Shannon resigned in part because of the mayor’s refusal to agree to his call for aggressive patrols in an area some locals refer to as “below the tracks.” That neighborhood, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, has a lot of rental housing and is home to more minorities than other parts of Bridgeport, Mr. Barbee said.

In a public letter about Chief Shannon’s resignation, the mayor mentioned their disagreement over the chief’s plans for stepped-up patrols. Of that plan, he wrote that it “was very difficult for me to see it as anything but racial profiling.”


In September, a PhillyVoice article brought more attention to the town, detailing racist and sometimes threatening social-media comments directed at Mr. Barbee last spring.

Mr. Barbee acknowledged those threats, which are under investigation by the county prosecutor, and said he was grateful that none of them had been made in person. Still, he said, the menacing words unnerved him.


Mr. Barbee’s critics say his focus on racism has brought Bridgeport unfair negative attention that might dissuade people, especially people of color, from moving there.

“The only solution I see is he has got to get away from this perceived image that we’re against people his color,” Mr. Pizza said. “We’re all the same as far as I’m concerned.”


Mr. Barbee remains hopeful that the community can come together. He was heartened to see a resolution condemning hate speech pass the council 6-0 at a recent meeting, and 10 mayors of other Montgomery County boroughs recently signed a letter of support for him.