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On May 31, 2020, the Philadelphia Police Department’s response to reports of chaos on 52nd Street unleashed a barrage of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray along the business and residential corridor long a cultural and commercial center of Black Philadelphia.

Outrage over George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer had caused outbreaks of vandalism in Center City the day before, and police had begun massing forces on 52nd Street that morning. By that afternoon, radio calls depicted a volatile situation. Store break-ins and looting. As overwhelmed officers sought backup, some in the crowd pelted police with debris; 15 were injured, one seriously enough to need emergency surgery. Police cars were set ablaze.

Then the dynamic shifted. SWAT teams deployed tear gas five times over three hours that afternoon along a half-mile swath, the city controller would later report, including, “down side streets where no protest or any improper activity occurred.”

People fled choking clouds of tear gas. Families with young children hid from the fumes in their homes. A man live tweeting was pepper sprayed, then was sprayed again when he asked for the officer’s badge number.

This show of “excessively violent reactions,” as a report later labeled it, was one more in a stream of insults to the predominantly Black community that already faced surging gun violence, the coronavirus pandemic, economic struggles, and a long-fraught relationship with police.

“It kind of felt like, everything that’s been playing out the country writ-large has been playing out in a hyper-focused way in West Philadelphia,” said Jamie Gauthier, the City Council member who represents the area.

Mayor Jim Kenney later said he regretted police actions last year, apologizing to West Philadelphians.

Since then, the city has banned the use of tear gas or rubber bullets during demonstrations and created a new deputy inspector general of public safety and a police oversight commission with investigative powers.

But in October, residents had new cause to distrust police when officers shot Walter Wallace Jr. more than a dozen times outside his family home after he approached officers with a knife amid what relatives said was a mental health crisis. Today, the 52nd Street retail corridor also retains the scars of last year, with two businesses that closed yet to reopen, though new enterprises also have emerged.

Six community members who witnessed the events of May 31, 2020, recently shared their perspectives on that day and its lasting impact on the community. The accounts, edited for clarity and concision, include those of an activist, a clergyman, and a mother who hid with her children in a bathroom to escape tear gas.

Kamau Mshale

Artist and activist who was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet by police near 52nd Street. Moved to Los Angeles.

I still have a lump in my chest from that rubber bullet — I don’t think it’s going away, it’s just there. I’m always more cautious about when I choose to go to actions now. Because the reality is, any action could be like [52nd Street]. We used to be like, any action we could be arrested at any time. … But now it’s like any action could turn violent and you could be assaulted, you could be shot. So I’m much more careful about how I go out and exercise my freedom of speech.

The biggest thing is I moved [to Los Angeles in February]. … This is the first time I’ve ever lived anywhere other than Philly.

After Walter Wallace, it really showed exactly what they about and what they’re trying to do. I started feeling more pressure from police in my neighborhood. The FBI arrested one of our friends. So there was that pressure of not knowing how much of an investigation is going on, what levels of what the charges might be.

The city didn’t get any better with how they responded or treated the Walter Wallace [shooting]. We’re still talking about the thing that happened in May. The same year, a couple months later, it was even worse.

Because for me, like the situation with Walter Wallace would have been a good example of showing how they could improve or showing that they could prove they’re trying something new.

But it didn’t happen like that because … they really don’t care about any of these situations, other than lip service. So they don’t look like they’re smashing their people over the heads.

This is the same city that waited 30, 40 years before they even attempted to make a formal apology to the [MOVE] folks they bombed and let their houses burn. So I’m not expecting that. But they took down the Rizzo statue, I count that as a win.

Amir Hussian

Owner of Variety Plus, on 52nd Street, which sustained at least $50,000 of damage during the unrest

Right now, we open, and we don’t have any customers, we just hanging out right now. We just hand to mouth, believe me or not. We just hand to mouth. We just pay little by little rent and then I just put in little by little we can to merchandise, so still we’re open. I don’t know how long we can stand up.

Honestly, our side here, police is very honest, very good. They protect us very honestly. They’re coming every two hours, three hours, they stop by. And they see us, they say, any problem call us. I don’t have any problem here, I’m almost 24 years on 52nd.

When the looting happened the community helped me a lot. They’re coming here. They’re fixing up my walls, fixing up the clothing. They didn’t want to take any money from me. They said, we’re just helping you. Neighborhood people. I’m here almost 25 years in this neighborhood, so everybody knows me. A lot of people. They’re just coming one days, two days to help me. I tried to give them a little money but they don’t take any money.

I have two children, and my father and my mom, and me and my wife. One is 10 years, one is 12 years. I gotta take care of my family. My father is 92 years old, and my mom is almost 79 years old, so we take care of them.

I try to be here another 10 to 15 years, I’ll try to stay. I don’t know how long God’s going to keep it.

Jamie Gauthier

City Councilmember who negotiated between police and protesters the night of May 31, 2020

It feels like we’ve experienced the most dramatic impacts of all the crises that had hit our country within the neighborhoods I represent. … Not only did we have some of the zip codes with the highest amount of [COVID-19] cases, we also had the highest amounts of hospitalizations in some instances. We have many people who are low-wage workers here who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

And then, you know, we had the issues of police violence that were being reckoned with across the country. On May 31, we saw an entire Black neighborhood, a Black residential neighborhood, tear-gassed by police. And then, a few months later, we had the tragic killing of Walter Wallace Jr., who was experiencing a mental health crisis, which kind of re-sparked civil unrest.

And in the midst of all of that, we have people who are challenged with housing issues, we have businesses on our commercial corridors that have been fighting through the pandemic and the economic recession, and also been challenged by multiple cycles of violence. And we’ve been dealing with almost unprecedented levels of gun violence.

I think that this past year has presented even more challenges for us in relationship building, among police and community. [This] also now kind of hampers us with respect to gun violence in our communities, because when people don’t see the police as legitimate, when people think the police are there to harm them, they’re not going to confide in police when violence happens in communities and then in some instances, they’re going to take justice into their own hands. And so, I think we’re at a place where we really have to work hard — very hard, we have to overwork — in order to rectify some of this stuff, and get to a healthier place within our city.

I never felt that we got an apology, the apology we deserved. And then, when the [city’s] after-action report came out, they, like, released it on Christmas Eve … in the middle of the afternoon. There was no real layout of who was responsible for what and what was going to happen as a result of that. So no, I feel like we just tried to brush it under the rug — particularly what happened on 52nd Street.

It’s not too late for a sincere, genuine, apology, but more than that it’s not too late to show empathy to our residents. To have and build real conversations about how people experience policing, and what should change. To make sure we are putting real funding not only into police, but into the myriad of things that people need to be safe. To build a compassionate mental health response that can prevent a Walter Wallace shooting from really happening. Invest immediately in interventions beyond policing that have been shown to reduce gun violence. … It’s funding the civilian oversight commission in a real way.

It’s the apology, but it’s also … showing up differently I think that matters.

I take inspiration from the resilience of my community members. I think that gives me the strength I need to keep pressing. And then I have an opportunity that not everybody gets: to be in a position to help people. And so I tried to stay focused on that, and on the duty that comes with that.

The Rev. Damone Jones

Pastor of Bible Way Baptist Church, who arrived on the scene after hearing reports of unrest

COVID has had an impact on literally everything. There’s this whirlpool of inequity. And every time something happens, the African American community gets the short end of the stick.

[On May 31, 2020], I was out here with my son. It’s the first time I’ve seen platoons of police in riot gear, in the middle of the streets. Military-style tanks in the middle of our streets. The first time I’ve been tear-gassed and fired on with rubber bullets.

But I’ve watched police harass people out here. Just for no reason. This is long before what happened a year ago. I’ve seen guys sitting on the steps, and the police come out, like, ‘What are you doing here?‘ And they’re sitting on their step in their neighborhood.

I had never seen the tanks before. But the fear of police? We’d never not had that.

I know there are legislators working on stuff. There’s been commissions. I was on one of them, to look at the police response, out of the city controller’s office. Has anything risen above the level of talk? I’m not really sure that’s really been realized at this point.

I was not unaware of the systemic racism we’ve always lived with. I’m always aware there are groups of people who will not ever really be accountable for what they do. We’re watching that in real time. The U.S. Congress says the insurrection was not really that bad. They sweep [the Tulsa massacre] under the rug. And they portray a peaceful Black Lives Matter march as terrorists.

[The 52nd Street tear-gassing] hasn’t changed me at all. It makes me more aware of how volatile things are at this particular point in our history.

Clinton Lewis

Caught in the tear gas, he fears leaving home and has barricaded his back room to protect his family

We was running to the house — [the tear gas] was coming over the house. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t do nothing. I’m trying to reach for the steps. We couldn’t find [one of my sons]. Their grandmother is very sickly. If [the gas] started to reach her … .

My eyes was burning. I was burning, burning, burning. I was like, What the hell am I going to do?

If anybody tells me stuff like this doesn’t affect them, I tell them, they’re super-persons.

It stays in your mind. Every time you hear a noise — [you think,] ‘What’s going on down here, now?’ I used to go round the corner here, sometimes sitting down with my friends. I don’t go around there. Because you think it’s going to happen again.

It’s a shame. Sometimes, my friends are, like, “Where are you at?” And I never really explained to them. I’m, like, “I’m all right.” I never tell them. Some things you just keep to yourself.

You move on, of course, but these things come back and haunt you. It’s all directions I’m trying to protect myself from. You think you can trust the police. And after — you can’t trust the police no more.

Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi

When tear gas seeped into their home, she and her two children fled to the bathroom for protection. She has since moved.

That situation that happened on Memorial Day weekend of last year, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I really didn’t feel safe there, I wasn’t comfortable, and I still to today, I have PTSD about it. Whenever there is something going on in the community or in the country, be it protests or rioting, it just resonates with me. I get nervous, I get paranoid. That is one of the reasons I left from that area [in November] because I just didn’t feel comfortable or safe anymore.

I’m just more skeptical about the police. I don’t want to encounter them for any reason even if it’s just something as simple as, can you give me directions somewhere.

How could you just drop tear gas on residents who don’t even know and who’s not even involved?

I just try to explain to [my son] there are some good police officers and there are some bad police officers, and that there are good white people and there are bad white people.

I want him to get older, grow up, get more of a background on what’s going on and come to his own conclusions as to how he feels about policing in this country. I don’t want him to hate anybody and I don’t want him to be too loving and trusting of a system that has been very bad to us. I just have him look at it from two different things, there’s good and bad in everyone.

I do want a personal apology. I don’t expect Mayor Kenney or Danielle Outlaw to come to my door to do it, but I want a letter, I want something in writing, a formal apology. Me, as an individual.

I want a personal apology, and I do want some type of compensation.

I moved because you all didn’t make me feel comfortable in the home I was living in.