Standing in Kenner’s Veterans Park, Mayor Ben Zahn rescinded his controversial anti-Nike policy Wednesday, four days after it erupted on social media and thrust Kenner into a national spotlight.
Zahn read a short statement and took a few questions in a brief appearance before assembled media, giving his first unscripted public comments since the memo enacting the policy became public.
“Acting upon advice of the city attorney, I have rescinded my memorandum of Sept. 5,” he said. “That memorandum divided the city and placed Kenner in a false and unflattering light on the national stage.”
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Zahn said it was his passion for the United States and for veterans that led him to issue the policy, which forbade all booster clubs connected to the city’s parks and playgrounds from purchasing any Nike products.
He acted after the company launched an ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the practice of many NFL players kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and social injustice.
The policy also directed Kenner booster clubs — which receive some city money but also raise their own — to get all purchases approved by the city’s recreation director.
Questions had been raised about whether Zahn had the legal authority to issue his order.
Kaepernick’s protest drew an angry response from President Donald Trump and many conservatives, and ignited a fierce national debate over the limits of free speech and the best ways to promote social justice.
Zahn cited that context in explaining his move against Nike.
“I looked at what I saw happening on a national level with Nike as a whole, and I stayed to my values on that,” he said in response to a question during his brief news conference late Wednesday afternoon.
But he said he never meant to be divisive.
The ACLU of Louisiana on Wednesday condemned Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn's anti-Nike purchase policy for booster clubs as "unconstitutional," saying…
“This was not meant to do anything like that,” he said. “This was meant … to protect our patriot values, our fire, our police and also our taxpayers.”
Until the memo surfaced, Zahn seemed to be riding a political crest. He was re-elected in the spring with more than 80 percent of the vote. And on the Kenner City Council, his two main foils either didn’t run or lost their race, giving him an enormous amount of political momentum.
That all changed Sunday, when Zahn’s memo was posted on Facebook and Twitter and drew a torrent of criticism from both local and national personalities, including Kenner native and Democratic Party operative Donna Brazile and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King.
It also drew heat from leaders of Kenner’s black community.
Councilman Gregory Carroll, recently a Zahn ally and Kenner’s lone black council member, called immediately for the policy to be rescinded and said he was “100 percent AGAINST” it. Others were stronger in their criticism, calling Zahn a racist and urging him to resign.
Privately, many Jefferson Parish politicos questioned his political judgment, saying Zahn should have foreseen the enormous backlash that grew out of the policy.
But the blowback seemed to catch him off-guard. He remained silent through all of Sunday and most of Monday, only issuing a short statement Monday afternoon. That statement applauded Nike for its “message of inclusion” but insisted the mayor's policy was a legitimate way to protect Kenner taxpayers from Nike’s “political campaign.”
Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn issued the following statement, his first since the memo forbidding booster clubs at the city's parks from purchasing Ni…
The several hundred people who gathered that evening at Kenner’s Susan Park Gymnasium for what was billed as a unity rally weren’t buying it. In Kenner, where the 2017 killing of a mentally ill black man by police remains a fresh wound, the anger at Zahn was palpable.
“They shouldn’t have to tell them what they can’t wear when they are not paying for it,” said Lakiesha Wells, who attended the rally with her two children, both of whom were wearing Nike products.
Some coaches at Kenner parks said they never buy Nike gear because it is often too expensive and wondered why the mayor would anger people over what amounted to a symbolic move.
The rally drew no members of the Kenner council or Zahn’s administration, but New Orleans City Councilman Jay Banks attended, sporting a Nike T-shirt under his suit jacket and telling the attendees, “I stand with you.”
In fact, some of the sharpest criticism of Zahn came from New Orleans officials, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who said the ban didn’t jibe with New Orleans’ “values” and assured travelers to the city’s airport — which is in Kenner but is owned by the City of New Orleans — that the airport would reflect New Orleans, not Kenner, policies.
On Wednesday, Zahn said rumors that businesses and developers had threatened to leave the city because of the controversy were not true. He added that it was simply his love for the “country and the brave men and women who put themselves on the front line every day” that led him to create the policy.
Jill Johnson, a lifelong Kenner resident, attended the press conference with her brother and two others, toting a sign calling for Zahn to step down.
Johnson said any positive impact from Zahn’s decision to rescind the policy was tempered by the fact that he seemed to have done so because he got boxed in, legally and politically.
“I was always told, the first thing a person speaks is how they truly feel,” she said. “So what he said (Wednesday) is not going to change the hurt, the anger or anything within the residents of Kenner.”
Johnson said she feels the expressions of patriotism often used to counter the protests started by Kaepernick miss the point and often aren’t necessarily about supporting the troops.
“I think it’s become more racial,” she said.
She thinks the damage extends beyond Kenner.
“Right now, friends out of town think we’re a joke and we have a racist mayor,” she said.