The message local and national governments have sent the American public in this historic moment is clear and stunning.
On Sunday morning, a controversial statue of a former Philadelphia mayor and police commissioner that for many represents the city’s legacy of racism was among the first things to be cleaned after it was defaced during protests the night before.
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On Sunday night, the White House turned off the external lights of “the people’s house” as hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who pleaded that he couldn’t breathe while a white police officer held him down with his knee.
But make no mistake, this isn’t just about a statue that speaks to a city’s unwillingness to confront its past and present. (Frank Rizzo’s approach to policing and governing was often considered corrupt and racist, criticisms many have of police to this day.) It’s also not just about a president who has spent his whole administration sowing hatred only to hide out in a bunker when that hatred came knocking on his door.
This is about priorities — America’s and Philadelphia’s — and how, even during mass unrest in the middle of a historic pandemic, those priorities continue to side with individual and institutionalized racism over citizens who are literally fighting for their lives.
The city can get crews out first thing to clean up a statue, and yet it can’t always manage to wash the blood off city streets just minutes from downtown where young black and brown men are regularly gunned down. That grim task has often been left to the very residents who are forced to live with relentless gun violence that never gets the attention and resources of the recent demonstrations.
There never seems to be enough money or political will to adequately fund or fix city schools, to rid them of toxic lead harming children and teachers, but just based on what we’ve seen in the last few days, there is enough money to outfit police departments to wage open and state-sanctioned war on citizens.
Across the country, doctors and nurses are wearing garbage bags as they fight a pandemic that is disproportionately killing people of color, but not a cent is being spared to turn American cities into police states while the president tweets out “LAW & ORDER!”
Let me be very clear. I do not condone vandalism or violence. My heart especially breaks for the small-business owners in West Philly who were already struggling before their stores were looted this weekend.
But we need to stop pretending that we don’t know the origins of this outrage and anger.
This reckoning didn’t happen overnight or in a bubble. It’s just that those lucky or privileged enough to live in bubbles have never had to plead and march and die just to be seen and heard. Just to breathe.
On Sunday, when the Rizzo statue was cleaned, the site at the Municipal Services Building where it stands was guarded by mounted Pennsylvania state troopers and Philadelphia police officers. The mayor insisted that the priority to have it immediately cleaned was no grand statement.
He said that the statue would be removed “hopefully by another month or so” — we’ve heard a version of this since 2017 — before some mumbo jumbo about how it was engineered in such a way that would make the move complicated and pricey.
Imagine if as much care and consideration were given to black and brown city residents as a 10-foot, 2,000-pound statue of a dead, divisive white guy?
Imagine if leaders in this city and country understood, or cared, how much their actions — or inactions — were responsible for what is happening right now?
What would have spoken volumes would have been for Philadelphians to wake up Sunday morning to see that the mayor had ordered that statue out of its place of honor once and for all.
Doing the right thing isn’t hard.