It’s as if all the Band-Aids disappeared just as your leg got blown off.
You’d think, as I did Tuesday morning, that fortifying some of Philadelphia’s most important supermarkets against further looting and destruction would be accomplished by political will, well-considered police tactics, and finding enough officers to stand guard.
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I was wrong. And I shouldn’t have been surprised. The year 2020, with its pandemic pounding followed by economic devastation and now racial unrest, is a vampire — a vile force that can’t stop sucking the life out of us.
On Tuesday, I phoned around to see if National Guard troops would, as ShopRite chain owner Jeff Brown had pleaded the day before, be deployed to two supermarkets that were ransacked in needy Philadelphia neighborhoods this week. I discovered that, as with many of the seemingly endless scourges to befall our city and country this year, there is no simple answer.
These protests are happening all over. And when civil unrest is happening all over at the same time, it’s hard to turn to your neighbor and ask for help.
But asking for help from out of state is exactly what Pennsylvania had done for years when responding to emergencies such as blizzards, floods, papal visits, and political convention demonstrations.
The problem this time: With all the street chaos far and wide, there are not enough bodies to spare readily in law enforcement to help contain Pennsylvania’s hot spots.
When Philadelphians awoke Tuesday morning there were 1,000 National Guard troops on the ground in their city after a weekend of demonstrations and destruction provoked by the videotaped Minnesota police killing of George Floyd.
An additional 500 were on their way Tuesday to the city and neighboring Delaware County. And 100 had already arrived in Delaware County on Monday after weekend protests spilled into destruction at its 69th Street shopping district, just as Philadelphia’s commercial corridors were being damaged.
Mobilizing them quickly, the Guard told me, has been tough. But not impossible. They already had 1,000 deployed statewide for the coronavirus after the pandemic forced a shutdown of much of the state economy in March.
Still, a National Guard spokesperson, Lt. Col. Keith Hickox, said the Guard had a big enough force and was figuring it out.
The bigger challenge has been in the lap of the agency that tells the National Guard and other law enforcement to deploy to declared disaster sites such as Philadelphia: the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
PEMA has had no luck coaxing authorities in neighboring states to send officers. That’s because they, too, are grappling with historic protests that are set against historic unemployment caused by a pandemic whose virus disproportionately has been shown to take aim at the African American poor of our big cities.
“Because of the escalation in the other states,” PEMA Director Randy Padfield told me Tuesday, “we had no other states actually put any bids in on those requests.”
That means any effort to buttress security at Philadelphia supermarkets, for instance, is not just a matter of political will.
The state has been scavenging for law enforcement help with these protests in much the same way as it had to find its own COVID-19 solutions in the absence of any meaningful federal assistance or direction.
In addition to the National Guard, PEMA has amassed as many people as it can from the state police, the state Game Commission, and even the state Fish and Boat Commission, Padfield said.
The Game Commission. Yes, you read that correctly.
“If [civil unrest] is localized, you can surge resources from other areas in to the affected area," Padfield said. "Here, the states wanted to keep their law enforcement because of the escalation that was occurring in the other states.”
In other words, just as with the pandemic that left states and counties largely in charge of finding resources for the coronavirus scourge, the incredibly delicate task of controlling these demonstrations is made harder by similarly scarce resources, too.
The state funnels emergency staffing to places with disaster declarations. Those protest-related designations are now in place for Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties in our region, plus Allegheny, Erie, and Dauphin Counties to the west. It is highly unusual that no states followed those actions by sending help in return for eventual monetary reimbursement.
This is our unwelcome state of affairs in 2020. A country where every day, every week, something formerly “highly unusual” shows its face — more than 40 million American unemployed, a novel coronavirus forcing us to stay away from our loved ones, racial killings, and heartbreak — only to become a grisly “new normal.”
In the absence of police, one of Brown’s two Philadelphia ShopRites looted overnight Sunday was hit a second time Monday night into Tuesday morning. He said this time the pharmacy at the Fox Street store was cleared out and just about every cash register computer destroyed.