A few hundred demonstrators took to city streets for a 10th day on Monday, with Philadelphia public defenders and other supporters walking as part of coordinated marches by public defenders nationwide. It was the first day since May 30 that massive, tireless protests did not overtake the streets, and it became the second night in a row that Philadelphia did not impose a curfew.
As Democrats in Harrisburg attempted to persuade their Republican counterparts to allow police reform legislation to move forward, Philadelphia City Council called on Mayor Jim Kenney to enact 15 specific changes in the city’s police department.
The protesters marching with the Defender Association of Philadelphia asked the city to invest in the Public Defender’s Office instead of the Police Department, give public defenders overtime pay, end solitary confinement in juvenile detention, and end mass incarceration.
“This goes far beyond George Floyd,” said Hassan Bennett, whose 2006 murder conviction was overturned in 2019 and who is now an advocate for the Defender Association. “It goes to the systemic injustice that’s grown in our country for over 400 years.”
As protests and pressure continue across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, and a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband that city’s police department and create a new system, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill aimed at national reform. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Joe Biden said the Democratic presidential candidate supports reforms but not defunding police.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, speaking at a Senate news conference to unveil the police reform legislation, said black Americans “have a wildly different set of experiences with the police.”
“We must change laws and systems of accountability,” Booker said, saying the Democrats’ proposed legislation would create a national registry of police misconduct, to record and track abuses and make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct.
Floyd, who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, will be laid to rest Tuesday in Houston, where the mayor has asked other cities to turn on light displays in his honor. Accordingly, Boathouse Row will be lit up in gold, Kenney announced Monday.
A petition against “militarized” policing at the University of Pennsylvania, calling on the school to end what organizers called a campus “police state,” gained more than 10,000 signatures in the last week. The university disagreed with the petition’s premise, and a spokesperson Monday said the school has “one of the finest university police departments in the country.”
Fourteen of City Council’s 17 members signed a letter, delivered to Kenney on Monday, calling for significant reforms to the Police Department, including “fully resourced, independent police oversight” and changing the police arbitration process.
“Philadelphia can’t breathe,” the letter began. “In the poorest big city in America, during a global health pandemic and a massive economic crisis, the people of our city are telling us that police reform cannot wait. We must hear them and act decisively.”
The letter was signed by all Council members except Brian O’Neill, David Oh, and Bobby Henon.
A 2019 Inquirer investigation found the police arbitration process has enabled more than 100 Philadelphia cops who were disciplined or fired to have their sanctions reduced or overturned, allowing them to regain their jobs and ranks even after misconduct.
“The number-one thing would be making sure there’s a process in which when bad cops who are held accountable are fired, they are actually fired,” said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose office drafted the letter.
Johnson said the current arbitration system, which is governed by the city’s contract with the police union, “actually takes away the trust of the community, because they felt like that person should be held accountable for their actions.”
The letter called for 14 additional changes, including for community representatives and outside experts to have a seat at the table in contract negotiations between the city and police union, a system to track indicators of risk for police misconduct, specific guidelines for when officers are allowed to unholster or point firearms, and a prohibition of police sitting or kneeling on subjects’ neck, face, or head.
Calling policing “vitally important work,” the Council members also repeated requests that Kenney drop the proposed $14 million increase to the police budget for next year and “recalibrate budget priorities” to fund rather than cut spending for public health, housing, social services, civic and arts programs, and other needs.
Public defenders and supporters gathered at the National Constitution Center before peacefully marching past the Federal Detention Center, Police Headquarters, and other stops on the way to the Stout Center for Criminal Justice. Police walked and biked alongside.
“You are not alone,” a few hundred chanted outside the prison, looking up at the windows as they held signs above their heads. They also called out demands for equitable funding for public defenders, chanting, “We want equity.”
“We have better solutions than the system has produced,” said Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey after the group reached the Criminal Justice Center. “What has it done for us? It has given us lifetime records so we cannot have equal opportunity.... Generational despair has been made because of this system.”
The group knelt outside the courthouse for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, joined by Bradford-Grey and Sheriff Rochelle Bilal. Afterward, an elementary school student spoke, still kneeling with his protest sign, his voice hoarse with emotion.
“I’m 11 years old!” Isaac Gardner Jr. yelled to a captivated crowd as tears streamed down his cheeks. “I want to grow up to be as long as I can live, so I can die peacefully, not with a knee on my neck, not with a bullet in my back.”