Even if you tear it down, they will come. Just 13 hours earlier, a giant crane — deus ex machina, indeed — had airlifted the 2,000-pound likeness of Philadelphia’s nightstick-wielding ex-mayor and top cop Frank Rizzo from its 21-year-long command post at the Municipal Services Building. The stench of brutal and oppressive policing still hung thick in the muggy air.
And so on late Wednesday afternoon, a window of sunny glare sandwiched between a deadly derecho and a tornado warning, they kept coming to the intersection of 15th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, even as several thousand were marching elsewhere around the city. They stood in a line that kept growing with signs that read “SAY THEIR NAMES” and “I’m not black but I see you ...” and “Defund Demilitarize Reform #BLM.” On the other side of a barricade was a thin blue line of Philly cops backed by a gaggle of heavily armed tin soldiers of the National Guard, who’d been guarding the Rizzo statue a day earlier and now were defending only a giant void
Meredith Lowe snapped a picture of the scene, then sat down in the middle of the intersection with her wife, Karen Specht — the fifth straight day they’ve been out demonstrating. “We were waiting for this to happen," the 32-year-old principal of Philadelphia’s Andrew J. Morrison Elementary School said, of the Rizzo statue. “We think it’s a great first step, and there’s a lot more to do. We believe white supremacy is real, we believe [there is] systematic oppression.”
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Moments later, the crowd had swelled to 200 and began to march, past the boarded-up windows along Market Street East, up 9th Street in the heart of Chinatown chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!" and then down Race Street past police headquarters, the Roundhouse. Its brutalist architecture has, to so many, served as a symbol of oppression since Rizzo’s 1960′s heyday, but suddenly it looked very small. As the march crossed the lawn of Independence Mall in the shadow of where the American Experiment was fomented and near where Ben Franklin captured lightning, the electricity was all about not knowing where this thing was headed next.
The last two weeks of American history have been truly remarkable. Since the violent Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the knees of four Minneapolis police officers was captured on videotape, Minnesota officials have now arrested all four cops and increased the charges on the most culpable one, while officials from Philadelphia to Richmond race to yank down statues memorializing racial oppressors that had long seemed immovable objects.
And yet the protests are not fading. Instead, the crowds are growing bigger and bigger, especially as images of fresh police violence against peaceful protesters and journalists has only heightened the contradictions in American society. The loud bangs of looting and vandalism have mostly faded, and as I write this, it is the cadence of nonviolent dissidents — not President Trump’s toy soldiers — that are “dominating the streets.” And not just the usual suspects in Portland or Lower Manhattan. As you read this, Americans are protesting in all 50 states, in places like Havre, Montana (100 showed up, in a town of 9,700), or Columbus, Mississippi, where a biracial gaggle of a dozen or so people are holding aloft signs that read, “No lives matter until black lives matter.”
But the questions reverberate even more loudly than the chants. Why now, when so many black and brown men and women have been senselessly killed before George Floyd was suffocated? Will the protests lose steam — there’s no evidence of that yet — and if they don’t where is this all headed? At what point do we acknowledge that while these are the George Floyd protests that they are becoming even more than that, that as the crowds grow bigger and more diverse this is becoming a peaceful revolution in the streets of America? And if it is becoming a revolution, what are the demands?
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The thing is, the protests are not new. Ever since thousands of folks left the comfort of home to camp out for the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, there has been march after march — from Ferguson and Black Lives Matter to a massive People’s Climate March to an even more massive Women’s March and Occupy ICE and many more. Yet our elected officials and the mainstream media has done a shameful job in playing deaf before their communities.
I keep thinking back to one event from just 10 months ago — a nationwide Lights of Liberty protest against the inhumane conditions that the Trump administration inflicts on refugees at the southern border. On short notice, more than 100,000 people held vigils in more than 700 communities in all 50 states. That’s remarkable, and yet the mainstream media ignored it or grossly downplayed it, as it has done with every progressive protest for decades.
Meanwhile, camera crews trip over each other and news editors set aside a corner of the front page any time a couple dozen yahoos with AR-15s slung over their Hawaiian shirts show up at a state capital. There’s a weird confluence of reasons — images of protesters with guns get more clicks than those with candles, and there’s newsroom guilt over a need to amplify right-wing voices that melts away when it’s time to hand the megaphone to black and brown ones.
But the media isn’t the only entrenched institution whose failings have been laid bare. Since Mike Brown was gunned down in Ferguson in August 2014, black folks and their allies have marched and laid down in the street and blocked bridges and after all that, police still kill more than 1,000 people every year in America, no fewer than before. I know one is considered a deluded conspiracy theorist to speak of a “deep state” but what is one to call it when an entrenched network of quasi-fascist police unions and career prosecutors who celebrate mass incarceration won’t yield to the will of the people?
When I arrived at Dilworth Plaza, I emerged near the Starbucks stand that had been heavily fire-damaged in Saturday’s unrest. It was just four months ago on a frigid February night that I sat in that Starbucks, drinking a venti coffee to prepare to cover a small but spirited protest over Trump’s impeachment acquittal and wondering if change would ever come to America. No one at this week’s protests was condoning destruction, but if a riot is the voice of the unheard, the deafness of the Establishment had been shattering ... until now.
As the crowd on the edge of Philadelphia City Hall grew nearing sundown and two marches merged, I met Jessica Downing, 27, and Joey Clayton. Downing, who is black, and Clayton, who is white, are best friends and coworkers from the Anthropologie store, shuttered for weeks because of the coronavirus. She told me she’d grown up hearing from her parents what it was like to be born when segregation was still legal in America, and the lack of progress had finally pulled her and her sign — “DANGER: Racist Cops/I Can’t Breathe” — and her friend out into the streets.
Like many protests, the demands started simple — arrest the cops who murdered George Floyd — but have swelled into much broader demands for systemic change, even as many protesters are just beginning to have the complicated conversation about what these radical solutions might look like. The scenes of the last three months, with some nurses forced to use plastic garbage bags as protective gear even as police departments stock up with tear gas and rubber bullets, have convinced many that the battleship of a decades-old police state must be turned around.
In Los Angeles, efforts to appease protesters with Mayor Eric Garcetti promising to move $150 million out of the police budget and into programs for low-income communities have run into the realization that it’s only a fraction of a gobsmacking $3 billion that America’s second-largest city spends on its cops. Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney’s current budget scheme increases police funding by $14 million, largely to cover a pay raise, yet would slash police oversight. That’s drawing increased scrutiny — as it should, But too many of these decisions will be made by the generation of politicians who entered public service to get “tough on crime,” and we’re too far into the 2020 cycle to easily replace them with a new batch.
In 1968, after two years of urban riots over so many of the same issues, a more predominantly white and conservative electorate embraced the “law and order” politics of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. This is not the same America. We’ve transformed from a nation where a majority of folks blamed the students gunned down at Kent State to one where 64 percent of Americans are sympathetic to these protests, even after reports of some looting. And yet our current system may be too battered, broken and gridlocked to change — and this terrifies me.
As I write this on Thursday morning, folks are planning to do it all over again in Philly and still marching in the most unexpected places, like from Wayne to Paoli on the comfortably un-afflicted Main Line. There is no end in sight. Outside City Hall, a 27-year-old black man in a Phillies’ cap, from the Broad and Olney neighborhood — he didn’t want to give his name — saw my notebook and approached me to say that “the only thing we want is ... peace!”
But how do we get there? He thought for a long time and then said, “When we don’t act like we have races but just one race — the human race,” and then he quickly melted into a rainbow crowd of a couple thousand humans that seemed to only get bigger.
Columnist’s note: On a related matter, I want to offer 100% support and solidarity with all of the journalists of color at The Inquirer who are engaged in acts of protest. The organization must change, and it runs much deeper than the racially insensitive headline that was published this week. As someone who has benefited from white privilege throughout my career, the most important things I can do are listen today, and act tomorrow. I promise to do both.