When I watched the video of Walter Wallace Jr., 27, being gunned down by two Philadelphia police officers on Monday, I was overcome by sadness and rage. Then a sense of calm certainty overtook those roiling emotions, because I was sure of one thing.
This would not have happened if Walter Wallace Jr. were white.
My assuredness was not based on statistics, though Black men are vastly overrepresented among those who are killed by police. It was not based on identity politics, though I am as Black as they come.
My firm opinion that a white man in mental health crisis would not have suffered Wallace’s fate was based on the fact that in America, police give white men the benefit of the doubt. That’s true when white men are armed, like the bat-wielding white vigilantes in Fishtown who assaulted people in the wake of the George Floyd protests. It is true when they are white supremacists, like Dylann Roof, who was taken to Burger King by police after killing nine African Americans. It is true when they are mentally ill, like James Holmes, who killed 12 and injured 70 at a Batman movie premiere and was taken alive by police.
This is not to say that white men are never killed by police in America. It is only to acknowledge that in any number of circumstances, police officers approach white men differently than they do Black men. Take Wallace’s situation, for instance.
We know that Walter Wallace Jr. was experiencing a mental health episode when police were called to his family residence around 61st and Locust on Monday afternoon. We also know, through The Inquirer’s reporting, that police were called to the residence two previous times that day. When officers arrived for the third call, Wallace was on the porch with a knife. He walked to the street with his mother trying to calm him down. Then, as Wallace walked toward them with a knife in hand, the two officers — who were not equipped with tasers, according to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — fired a barrage of at least seven bullets apiece.
This, even as Wallace’s mother begged police not to shoot her son.
Perhaps you can imagine a white mother imploring police not to shoot her mentally ill son and police shooting him anyway.
However, I cannot.
Still, there are those who even now are justifying the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a young Black man with a family who loved him. Among them is John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge Number 5, the local police union.
“Our police officers are being vilified this evening for doing their job and keeping the community safe, after being confronted by a man with a knife,” McNesby wrote in a statement on Monday evening. “We support and defend these officers, as they too are being traumatized by being involved in a fatal shooting.”
McNesby’s statement, which didn’t mention Wallace’s family, went on to ask the public to have patience as the facts are gathered.
That’s the problem with policing in America’s Black communities. When cops shoot Black people, their unions and enablers support the officers, no matter the circumstance. Yet they expect the public to wait for the facts to come out.
That kind of hypocrisy, from police unions that support a president that African Americans overwhelmingly view as racist, is no longer acceptable. Not in the Black communities affected by police violence.
“We can’t go back to the days of Frank Rizzo,” West Philadelphia community activist Kayzar Abdul Khabir told me. “We can’t. And those who are good cops — y’all gotta stand up. Those police officers that killed Walter Wallace, why are their names and pictures not out there? If that was us [who killed someone], we would have names out there.”
Khabir is right, but this is about so much more than simply naming names. It’s about admitting the truth.
Walter Wallace Jr. would not have been subjected to a barrage of bullets, endangering bystanders and his family, if he were a white man in a white community. White mass murderers get better treatment than that, and if we are going to save the next Walter Wallace Jr., we must first acknowledge that reality.