I walked the streets of Center City on Saturday night with a group of clergy as the looting was at a feverish pitch and buildings burned. We were there as unofficial protest monitors, ensuring that even looting children be treated with all that the law affords if arrested. In spite of what the president said, looting is not a capital offense.
I saw hundreds of young people who looked like my own children. They were taking sneakers, clothes, and electronics. I thought as we walked past the police guarding a broken window at Walgreens that if their colleagues in Minnesota had the same concern and protected George Floyd so carefully that we would not have been out there that night.
On Sunday evening, I joined several other clergy members to also bear witness to the looting at Parkside. Over those two days, I could not help but think of all the times that our organization, POWER, warned city elected officials and business leaders of the peril in neglecting the neighborhoods in America’s poorest big city.
I reflected on the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said of looting: “Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act.” I was moved by the owner of an Indian restaurant in Minneapolis that was burned down as he remained in support of the protests. As he said, he can rebuild a building, but not a human life.
I write all that to say that I thought I knew how I felt about the looting.
Until Monday, when I found myself pulled into a series of meetings with federal, state, and city elected officials and grassroots community leaders from the black community. The rage was palpable.
Persons whom I have known as advocates for criminal justice reform openly called for the district attorney to prosecute the “thugs” who were destroying the community. I spoke to a security expert called to Jeffrey Brown’s looted ShopRite, who lamented the fact that when called to Parkside for an analysis, older black women arrived and were devastated. It was the first of the month and they had come to pick up prescriptions and groceries. Where could they turn now? I heard the fear in the voices of persons that business leaders like Brown who employs hundreds of black people with criminal records, would listen to their friends and close up shop for good. I saw a congressman weep as he talked about how much they fought to build Parkside, and now it could all be gone. It was the side of looting that we who can get too theoretical can forget all too fast as we shout and preach out “let it all burn.”
I went home Monday night and wept. I wept for the desperately poor. I wept for those who stole not because they needed it, but because they are lost. I wept for the neighborhoods that have been left in ashes and broken glass. I wept for business owners, large and small. I wept for workers already devastated by COVID-19 who now have disasters added to the pandemic. I wept for my city, that I got to know just a little bit better this week through the pain and trauma of an uprising. I wept for protesters frustrated that their calls for justice will be marred by looting. I wept for us all.
And yet, I am still conflicted. Perhaps this feeling will never be resolved. These are not easy things to think about, let alone write about.
But I do maintain hope. My hope is found in the ashes of burned-out buildings. A good friend, the Rev. Cean James, and his congregation this coming Sunday will not worship in their building. Instead, they will worship inside the burned-out remains of a local Southwest Philadelphia business. What an image!
I see a day ahead for Philadelphia when we will rebuild a city of opportunity that works for all. A city that flourishes from the lofty top of the Comcast Tower to the strong neighborhoods of West, North, Southwest Philadelphia, and beyond. As the Prophet Isaiah declared, we will exchange our ashes for a new garment of praise.