Police violence is, of course, nothing new. But with the advent of cell phone cameras and social media, horrifying incidents of police violence have never been more accessible to the public. The very foundation of policing in the United States is rooted in the enforcement of slavery and, later, Jim Crow laws. Since the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, we continue to see regular incidents of police violence against Black and brown people. From the 2018 police killing of Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh to the 2019 police killing of Osaze Osagie in State College to the police killing of Ricardo Muñoz in Lancaster in September to the police killing of Walter Wallace, Jr. in Philadelphia in October, police violence touches every corner of our commonwealth, and our country.
This summer was especially traumatic for Black and brown Americans, and for every person who is committed to stopping police from killing people once and for all. The police killings of George Floyd and Breona Taylor galvanized the nation; the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests inspired demonstrations around the world demanding racial justice and an end to police violence.
In Pennsylvania, rallies and marches for Black Lives were organized from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, with tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians risking their health and safety during this pandemic to hit the streets and peacefully demonstrate for change.
But even as protesters called for an end to police violence, particularly against Black and brown people, the police responded with more violence, frequently targeting Black and brown demonstrators, in violation of the First Amendment right to peaceably protest and assemble. Such violations perpetuate distrust of the police, ineffective policing, abuse of power, and systemic oppression.
Over the course of three days beginning on May 30, Philadelphia police unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets, and military-grade weaponry on peaceful protesters. Police occupied residential streets in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood of predominantly Black and brown residents, late into the night, where even those who had not left their homes all day were exposed to plumes of tear gas floating in from the street. At the same time, police ignored, and in some cases offered support to, white vigilantes who continued to roam the streets or “guard” retail superstores far past curfew in predominantly white neighborhoods.
During the largest demonstration of those three days, police kettled hundreds of peaceful protesters on Interstate 676. Again wielding tear gas and rubber bullets, police pushed and kicked demonstrators to the ground, squirting pepper spray directly into demonstrators’ eyes. This violence forced protesters to find any means to escape 676. Most climbed a steep embankment, many still struggling to see and breathe from the gas and pepper spray.
Months went by with no accountability or justice for the communities who suffered the police violence while exercising their First Amendment rights in those early days after the killing of George Floyd.
Then, on October 26, Philadelphia police killed Walter Wallace, Jr.
And still, there has been no real accountability for the death of another Black man, a man in the throes of a mental health crisis and in need of an expert who would listen, not a cop who would shoot. Instead, we see many leaders in Philadelphia call for more Tasers, more money for police, and window-dressing talk about commitments to hiring more mental health professionals in response to the killing of Walter Wallace.
But talking about departmental reforms and new hiring practices is not real accountability. It’s certainly not justice for Walter Wallace. We will continue to support efforts to hold the officers involved in Walter Wallace’s death accountable for their actions and to seek broader transformation of how Black and brown communities are policed.
On December 1, six months after the sustained police violence against peaceful protesters, we teamed up with Drexel University’s Kline School of Law to send a detailed letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding the events of May 30-June 1 and asking the council to investigate the violence perpetrated by Philadelphia police as a violation of international law. Stay tuned in 2021 for more on our appeal to the United Nations.
Let’s be clear: we’re calling to divest from the police and reinvest some of those funds in community and social programs that are not under the umbrella of the criminal legal system. Police aren’t mental health experts. Police aren’t addiction counselors. Police don’t belong in schools. Police aren’t the military. We must take a hard look at police budgets across the commonwealth and stop funding police doing jobs that they never signed up for. We must invest that money in mental health support systems and counselors, in community rehab services, in building back up our school budgets, in restorative justice and first responders focused on de-escalation. And so much more.
Black Lives Matter.