Some students in the Philly area are headed back to school in person, but, needless to say, it looks a little different. Students and teachers now have to deal with masks, social distancing, plastic barriers, and no assemblies or field trips. And there’s a lot of other little things that are different now. My colleague takes you inside a school in Bucks County to learn more.

And, this week, I asked reporter Valerie Russ and interactive developer Dain Saint about their work on a timeline of police brutality in Philadelphia called the Black and Blue project.

— Lauren Aguirre (@laurencaguirre, morningnewsletter@inquirer.com)

The week ahead

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Behind the story with Valerie Russ and Dain Saint

Each week we go behind the scenes with some of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week, we chat with reporter Valerie Russ and interactive developer Dain Saint about their work on the Black and Blue project, which is a timeline of police brutality against Black people in Philadelphia.

When did you start working on the Black and Blue project? How did the idea come about?

Saint: We started working on the Black and Blue project around the first week of June. When the George Floyd protests broke out, I was dismayed to hear so many people asking me, “But why are they protesting in Philly when this happened in Minneapolis?” So many still hadn’t even heard of the MOVE bombing, let alone dozens of other high-profile instances of police brutality. It really spoke to a lack of historical understanding, and my hope was the timeline would be a good way to get everyone caught up with the reality the Black Philadelphians face every single day.

Russ: I was asked to get involved about June 8. Dain proposed the idea. But in a sense, on June 5, I wrote an earlier story about the history of slavery in America and how there were laws on the books since 1680 that declared that any sheriff or other white person who killed a Black person who had escaped from enslavement because the person was resisting recapture would not be prosecuted for a crime.

What was your role in the project?

Saint: I designed and developed the timeline; I also helped make sure our terminology was respectful and accurate. I’m indebted to the reporters that took on the massive task of pulling all these events out of our archives.

Russ: All the reporters were asked to look for old stories about police shootings and violence against Black people. Because I’ve been a police reporter, a neighborhood beat reporter, and I’m someone who loves digging into history, I was already aware of the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838 and how the police and fire officials simply let the building burn.

Because I write about history, I also had interviewed some of the people who protested against the segregation policies at Girard College when they were teenagers in 1965. They talked about police charging them with horses, motorcycles, and using police dogs to attack and bite teenage protesters.

Were there any specific challenges you had to overcome to deliver this reporting?

Saint: A project like this is impactful from its sheer size alone, but creating a design that kept the content engaging was a struggle. You have to strike a balance between being respectful to the history and the victims being displayed, but also keep the reader wanting to read and learn more — to do less would be a disservice to the story.

Russ: Working remotely and not being able to gather as a group was a challenge for me. As important as this work was, there was a sense of working in isolation that made it challenging.

What is one thing you want readers to take away from the project?

Saint: That nothing happens in a vacuum. Protesting is a long and proud American tradition, but I think too many people in our time view it as a nuisance at best and actively harmful at worst. I want readers to react to what is being protested, not the protests themselves.

Russ: I see the value in telling a long complicated story like Black and Blue in a graphic form. It makes it easier and more accessible for readers to grasp.

It has been important to see so many young people, and people of all ethnic groups and nationalities speaking out and protesting after the video images of George Floyd being killed in front of our eyes when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

However, the Black and Blue project showed that for 190 years in Philadelphia, many unarmed Black people were killed by police who often went unpunished. A police officer may have “thought” the person had a gun and feared for their life. Yet as the project showed, many people were shot in the back while running away.

Somehow, while police feared 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park in 2014, police don’t fear armed white adult men who had already killed multiple people: James Eagan Hogan killed 12 people inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012 and Dylann Roof killed nine Black people inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015.

Both white suspects, armed and dangerous, were arrested without being shot, let alone killed.

Is there anything you personally learned from your reporting on the project that you didn’t already know? Was there anything that surprised you?

Saint: I had some familiarity with the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, but had no idea he was once a journalist and the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. It created a very strong connection between his story and my own that I’m still processing.

Russ: I had not realized the depth of the history of police shootings of unarmed Black people in the city. I think as reporters we were aware of many cases where police shoot Black people and are cleared of wrongdoing. But it was the magnitude of the collective effort of trying to find as many cases as we did. In fact, we heard from a man that we had neglected to include the 1984 shooting death of his father, Charles Janerette, who was a former professional football player killed in 1984. We amended the timeline to include him.

What is something that will likely stick with you from your reporting?

Saint: Knowing that, for every story we were able to include, there were unknown untold others that we will never know about because they were not considered newsworthy. It makes me understand how important it is to do right by our communities now because our descendants deserve an accurate account of their history.

Russ: As I read the completed project, I was reminded that many shootings were in the news for a few days, but eventually people moved on and sometimes forgot about them. We tend to think of them as individual cases, as a once-in-a-while unfortunate shooting. Looking back, I remember there were protests when Charles “Window-Washing Charlie” Matthews was killed in 1992. He had an unloaded gun. There were protests, the police were found justified, and people moved on.

Seeing all of the cases in one place provides evidence of the shootings as not one-time incidences, but part of a systemic pattern of unjust shootings. As the timeline points out, the U.S. Justice Department in 1979 sued the Philadelphia Police Department because it found a pattern of unlawful police shootings. And it’s not just Philadelphia, of course, but happening all over the country.

Email Valerie Russ at vruss@inquirer.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieRussDN. Email Dain Saint at dsaint@inquirer.com.

Through Your Eyes | #OurPhilly

I love this shot of such a happy dog. Thanks for sharing, @milliethebluecorgi!

Tag your Instagram posts or tweets with #OurPhilly and we’ll pick our favorite each day to feature in this newsletter and give you a shout-out!

Can you visit friends and family for Thanksgiving? Here’s what to consider.

The holidays are getting closer and, during a pandemic, visiting family and friends brings with it extra considerations. We all want a return to normal, but COVID-19 is still here. So what does that mean for a family holiday gathering? It can depend on everyone’s tolerance for risk. With loved ones involved, especially older relatives or ones at high-risk, the decision on holding or attending an in-person gathering can feel unbearably hard. We asked experts to share advice on how to approach the upcoming holiday season, along with strategies you can take to decrease risk.

What we’re…

  • Eating: dumplings. Yesterday was National Dumpling Day, so it’s a good excuse to explore options at local restaurants.

  • Drinking: pumpkin beer. It’s fall, so it’s pumpkin flavor season, including for beer. We have a list of local craft breweries to try.

  • Exploring: Philly museums. Several art shows are open at museums in the city, with more to come.

Comment of the week

“Stop. There’s nothing wrong with liking pumpkin beer. I like egg nog at Christmas too, so sue me.” — chris_7562a, on 6 pumpkin beers from Philly-area craft breweries to try this fall.

Your Daily Dose of | A 100-year-old postcard

A postcard arrived in Brittany Keech’s mailbox in Michigan about 100 years late. The card depicted a Halloween celebration and was postmarked Oct. 29, 1920. She decided to try to find the family of the original recipients and figure out just how the postcard ended up in her mailbox. And she did, with some help.