Saturday, Philadelphia’s trajectory shifted for the second time in a few months.
In March, when a virus shut down every aspect of life and lay waste to lives and livelihoods, the world as we knew it was suddenly gone.
Last week, the images of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd served a gut punch to a country already suffering. It conjured a roll call of black people who were killed in the hands of police from nearly every city in America — Ferguson to Baltimore, Baton Rouge to Philadelphia.
Saturday started calmly, with protesters kneeling outside of City Hall. But things turned ugly when anger pent up from decades of injustice burst forth. The night left behind apocalyptic images of burning police cars, vandalized stores, and defaced buildings.
After coronavirus cases began emerging in Philadelphia, it was clear that there would be no way back to the past. Saturday night should serve as a similar moment — a collective recognition that returning to business as usual when it comes to policing is not an option.
When it comes to police violence and racism, every city has its own story to tell. Philadelphia’s story is longer and more brutal than most, whether we look back in months, years, or decades.
Philadelphia is the city of the MOVE bombing, the 39th police district scandal, and Frank Rizzo’s brutal leadership. It was almost exactly a year ago when 72 officers were placed on desk duty following the discovery of their racist posts on Facebook.
Stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia persists, with black pedestrians and drivers stopped at a rate much higher than their proportion of the population. Black Philadelphians are both more likely to be homicide victims, and less likely to have their homicide solved by police. One in 14 black Philadelphians is under probation or parole, and 72% of people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s jails are black.
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Police and incarceration aren’t the only manifestations of racial violence and inequity that continue to rend this city. That violence is seen in the devaluation of black and brown communities, where lives and promise have been looted for generations. Black Philadelphians have watched as their neighborhoods suffer disinvestment and predatory lending practices, and their children suffer through disinvestment in education.
Could Saturday night mark a point of change?
Soon, the Philadelphia Police Department will testify in front of Council for its budget hearing. At a time when other departments and programs are being decimated or terminated, the police are proposing a budget increase of nearly $14 million.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and the mayor will need to justify the increase, not just against the fiscal crisis, but against the backdrop of the police department’s community crisis. Taxpayers cannot continue to fund the police’s continuation of a status quo based on racism.
The statue of Frank Rizzo is perhaps the most blatant symbol of this city’s brutal police past. Protesters tried to topple the statue over the weekend and ended up defacing it.
It was one of the first things cleaned up on Sunday morning.
If Saturday night won’t lead to a dramatic shift in priorities, it’s hard to imagine that Philadelphia won’t go up in flames again.