When I learned that six police officers were shot while trying to serve a narcotics warrant just a block from Broad and Erie, I was transported back more than 20 years, to my journey through the muddy waters of homelessness and addiction.
Back then, Erie Avenue was much the same as it is now, a working-class community whose surprising solitude was occasionally interrupted by the gunshots that came with its drug trade. With a nightlife driven by clubs and bars, rib joints and crack houses, it remains a place where the police are viewed as enemies after years of brutality and corruption. And while the drug dealers and their guns are not wanted by anyone, they are viewed as a fact of life.
I know the steps to the intricate dance among the residents, drug dealers, and police of Erie Avenue. Not just because I lived on the streets there, and still pass through the area frequently. I know because I worked as a police dispatcher in the 1990s and came to know cops beyond the thin blue line that separates them from us.
» CATCHING UP: What you need to know about the police shooting and standoff
That’s why, in the wake of a shooting that injured six officers at 15th and Erie, I can see the anger of a black community that has been victimized by police, and the frustration of police who don’t know the communities they patrol. Now that the community and the police have each other’s attention, we must use this moment as an opportunity for dialogue. If we can’t do that, we must prepare to be a city in which none of us is safe.
To avoid such a disastrous outcome, I am praying for the full recovery of the officers who were shot during the nearly eight-hour standoff with a heavily armed criminal, just as I would pray for any other shooting victim in Philadelphia. Just as important, I am hoping that their families will pull through the trauma that violence leaves behind.
Some were surprised to learn that I would take that posture, given that I have been sharply critical of racist police policies and practices for years, including my recent efforts to hold more than 300 officers accountable for their racist and otherwise offensive Facebook posts revealed by the Plain View Project.
But here is the reality: I am not opposed to police who serve the black community with honor and integrity. I am opposed to those who invade the black community with racism and hate.
Just like many others in my community, I am angry with officers who shoot unarmed black people. I am appalled at the policies that shield them from facing consequences. I am incensed that there are politicians who pave the way for racist law enforcement. And I am actively working with a group called the Rally for Justice Coalition to change the system that has allowed too many police officers to run roughshod over my people.
The coalition, which includes the NAACP, the National Action Network, the Guardian Civic League, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, POWER, the Philadelphia Student Union, the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, and the Rev. G. Lamar Stewart of Taylor Memorial Baptist Church, has protested at Police Headquarters and at City Council. We’ve brought the community together for a forum on the issue. We’ve seen the unprecedented firing of 13 officers. And as we prepare for the September follow-up meeting that was promised by the mayor and police commissioner, we are serious about making adjustments to the contract and oversight that govern policing in Philadelphia.
We accomplished all that because the community was angry enough to act. But in my view, if I can’t put aside that anger when six officers are shot while trying to rid a community of the drugs that nearly destroyed my life, I am no better than the racist cops I am fighting against.
So yes, I am praying that those officers recover from their wounds. I am praying that my community will recover from the anger. I am praying that this moment will be a catalyst for change.