King called riots ‘the language of the unheard.’ Black Philadelphians say it’s now time to listen.
It’s a conversation Philadelphia has deferred for too long, community leaders say, pointing to the official hesitancy to apologize for MOVE bombing or to remove the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.
As shadows stretched long over the empty parking lot, Kim Fuller, 60, planted herself in the middle of the ParkWest Town Center — the miracle of a Lowe’s and a ShopRite and many more shops and services, all right there in her Parkside neighborhood — and sorrowfully surveyed what was left: boarded-up storefronts, the debris of looting swept clean that morning by Fuller and other volunteers.
Now, they were back to stand guard overnight and protect what remained, alerting police when a burglar broke into a wig shop, and gathering up the discarded hair for safekeeping, turning away a brazen driver who arrived with a U-Haul, guarding barricades, and shouting “6 o’clock curfew! Stop the nonsense!” whenever a car approached.
Yet, as painful as it was to see her community’s commercial heart in ruins, Fuller could acknowledge a certain clarity of purpose in the destruction.
“This all started with a man being lynched on the ground, with police walking into a woman’s apartment and just shooting. There is no repercussion for killing a black or brown person, so our people have had it,” she said, referencing the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. “We don’t want our community destroyed. We don’t want to fall apart at the seams. But at the same time, we cannot allow you to lynch us and not be held responsible ever again. So here we are tonight.”
From those shattering the glass to those cleaning it up, from elected officials to those who grew up enduring stop-and-frisk, there is plenty of disagreement about the tactics. Yet they’re united on the underlying message: Generations of government-sanctioned racism, violence, divestment, and oppression must end, and this week of protests and riots must lead to substantive change.
It’s a difficult conversation. But it’s one that Philadelphia has deferred for too long, community leaders say, pointing to the official hesitancy to apologize for the fatal firebombing of MOVE and the surrounding residential neighborhood 35 years ago, and the delay in moving the statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, whose image has come to symbolize brutal and racist policing.
Many said that structural oppression is baked into the city’s current proposed budget that includes a $14 million increase for policing while cutting funds for everything from schools to library after-school programs to public defenders to eviction-prevention programs and job training corps.
“I’m in support of any type of protest — especially peaceable protest," said Bishop Dwayne Royster, a leader with the Power Interfaith Coalition. “But like Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The riot is the language of the unheard.’
"In America, we don’t respond to anything until there is violence. The reality is, for folks of color in Philadelphia and beyond, we continue to experience violence in marginalized communities. While we focus on developing Center City, while we give tax abatements in gentrifying neighborhoods, we persist in being the poorest big city in America. We have not done anything about that. For folks who say there is no need to tear up Philadelphia, I ask: What has Philadelphia done for them?”
That question weighed on Tamia Fountain the last few days, as she listened to the sirens racing through her West Philadelphia neighborhood, heard helicopters and explosions and shattering glass, and remembered her brother, Phillip Fountain, who was shot and killed by two Philadelphia police officers in 2004.
One officer, Jason Reid, who was fired last year and criminally charged with punching a handcuffed man in the face and falsifying his report, would go on to shoot five more people in the line of duty. The other, Thomas Schaffling, over the years has made headlines in connection with the shooting of bar-goers, assaulting guests at a baby shower, and handcuffing a state representative who attempted to intervene in what he believed to be physical abuse.
A police investigation of Fountain’s death concluded that he had fired a gun and that the police use of force was acceptable. The district attorney did not take up the case. No lawyer would file a civil lawsuit for Fountain’s family.
“Something definitely needs to be done. We need to end police brutality. There is no reason why police should be out here intentionally murdering people,” said Tamia, who doesn’t believe the police narrative of her brother’s death.
The looting and destruction alarmed her. "Destroying our community was not our voices being heard to end police brutality at all,” she said. But she admitted that she wasn’t sure what other recourse was available. “Which route do you go just to have your voice heard?”
In North Philadelphia, Jondhi Harrell, a well-known community and justice-reform activist who runs the Center for Returning Citizens, said he skipped the protests, weary of repeating the same old chants without seeing sustained change. The protests came to him.
He stepped away from his office for an hour Sunday and returned to find the computers stolen, the entire place trashed.
To see burning police cars, a fire blazing under the Rizzo statue — those acts, to Harrell, sent a clear message: “Don’t they understand that they can’t just kill a black man in broad daylight, nonchalantly, and expect the world is not going to go crazy?”
But then, to see the destruction continue, and tear through poor and working-class neighborhoods, even his own nonprofit, “it had nothing to do with the frustration level. It just has to do with materialism.”
As city officials called for peace and said destruction is “never justified,” though, people like Michael Coard refused to join in the statements and news conferences. The civil rights lawyer said instead he would assemble a pro bono legal defense corps for the protesters. “Oppression has never changed as a result of civil and orderly discussion,” he added.
And even Atiba Kwesi, who had organized the overnight watch at ParkWest and in his nearby West Philadelphia neighborhood, had to agree. “The only reason the politicians are taking notice is because of the violence. They’re tearing up the cities all over the country.”
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier — who on Sunday evening, as 52nd Street in West Philadelphia lay in shambles, intervened in a standoff between demonstrators and police — withheld judgment. Her focus is on the message, not the medium.
“There’s a lot of rage, and we should listen to it," she said. “I don’t think we need to be parsing whether there needs to be looting — people are saying we need change, and they’re saying it loudly and clearly. We have to channel this anger and this energy into the change that people are asking for.”
That, she said, is clearly not only police accountability but also investment in young people and their communities.
The problem, said Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, is people have been asking for these changes for decades — going back to the 1960s, when North Philadelphia erupted in race riots and the Kerner Commission identified how racist housing, employment, policing, and voting policies had led to the unrest. Many people feel they’ve explored the potential of peaceful protest and found it lacking. “People say, When we kneel, you don’t like that. Now, we’re seeing rebellions throughout the country," he said. He said that, as organizers develop a series of concrete demands, that could result in real and lasting change.
The result of disempowering people and ignoring their concerns was what happened Sunday in West Philadelphia and elsewhere, said Rick Krajewski. A community organizer, he took time off from his campaign for state representative to stop by the protest on 52nd Street, a few blocks from his home, and talk to some of the young people. “What I heard was a lot of nihilism. It’s like: ‘My community doesn’t care about me. The schools don’t care about me. The police don’t care about me. So why should I care about any of my surroundings?’ ”
But what struck him the most was not the protests or looting, but the police response — escalating from batons to flash-bang grenades to tear gas and rubber bullets.
“That was a really traumatizing event for me to see my neighborhood turn into a police war zone," he said — but in a way it proved the protesters’ point, better than any quiet march could have done.
“I hope from here we can use this moment of pain and chaos to reckon with what it means to actually hold police accountable and not give them absolute power.”