One year ago Monday, Amelia Carter and her neighbors on 52nd Street watched in shock — and then panic and terror — as Philadelphia police lobbed tear-gas canisters throughout their residential neighborhood.
The experience, she said, was like nothing she had ever been through. Unrest and looting in the West Philadelphia neighborhood amid a nationwide uprising over police brutality had been met with astonishing force from local police — who fired tear gas and rubber bullets indiscriminately at agitators, protesters, and bystanders alike.
On Monday, she told a crowd in Malcolm X Park that, as she and her neighbors choked on gas, lined up to protect Black-owned businesses and eventually formed a line to try to prevent police from moving further into residential blocks, “we all became activists that day.”
For Carter, the founder and lead organizer of Penn Community for Justice, the year since has been one of relentless organizing, including providing testimony to the United Nations about what took place on 52nd Street. “For some, including myself, the constant organizing was a trauma response,” she said. “For others, it was a matter of survival. That day was a portal from which we can’t return.”
On Monday afternoon, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the gassing — and another incident a day later, where police fired tear gas at a trapped crowd of protesters on I-676 — Carter and other neighborhood residents and activists marched down 52nd Street, carrying signs reading “Human Rights Were Violated Here.” Later, about 75 people gathered in Malcolm X Park, where they sang, listened to speeches, meditated, and hosted a yoga session.
The idea, Carter said, was to not just remember the anniversary, but to give community members a space to relax and heal. Organizations supporting the event included the Philly Human Rights Appeal, the Black Philly Radical Collective, Penn Community for Justice, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Philadelphia Socialist Alternative, Black Lives Matter Philly, and Reclaim Philadelphia.
“A lot of organizations that don’t always work together were able to come together,” Carter said.
Those who came to the event said they were grateful to be together — but also acknowledged how painful the anniversary was.
“I love seeing that we’re all getting together in community,” said Elaine Holton, a neighbor who marched in a drumline down 52nd Street, leading protesters to the park. But it was hard, she said, to see police lining the street on the march. “I’m working through my own trauma of what happened that day,” she said. And, she added, she wants the city to issue a more robust response to those events.
After Carter, Holton, and other neighbors sent testimony to the United Nations about the 52nd Street incident last year, U.N. officials have since issued several letters expressing concern over Philadelphia police’s actions during last year’s protests, requesting more information on the incident and the city’s policies, and warning that the events of last summer may violate human rights. (A city spokesperson said in an email Friday that the city has not “received correspondence requesting a response” and so has not responded to the U.N.)
In January, the City Controller’s Office wrote in a report that city leadership had failed to effectively plan for protests or unrest surrounding last summer’s nationwide uprising, and that those failures of leadership led to excessive uses of force — and recommended that the city ban the use of tear gas and work with community members to develop broader changes to police policy.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who gave a speech in the park Monday commemorating the teargassing incident and decades of police brutality in the city — including the MOVE bombing and the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. last fall — said the last year had been “hellish.”
“No one wants to have to commemorate violence against Black people — no one wakes up on a sunny day and say, ‘Let’s go to Malcolm X Park and commemorate a teargassing that happened,’” they said. “But I know it’s possible to have a future that doesn’t look like this. I think the city needs to take money away from cops and give that money to the community directly.”
Gabriel Bryant, of the Black Philly Radical Collective, said it’s imperative for activists to work with and support community members like the neighbors around 52nd Street.
He was on the corridor a year ago Monday, he said. He still thinks about people emerging from the El station into the chaos on the street — and the young child he saw on 52nd Street, watching as an armored car rolled down the corridor. “His eyes were so wide with fear and fright,” he said.
“It’s been a challenging year. People in the community recognize that policies have to be changed. And the work has to be amplified by the community most impacted,” he said. “We still have work to do, and these communities still don’t feel like their voices have been heard.”