The death of Michael Brown at the hands of law enforcement officer Darren Wilson last summer sparked rioting and aggressive protesting in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. Many people across the United States watched the media coverage and thought, “This would never happen in my hometown.” However, the unrest in Ferguson was only the beginning of protests stemming from unlawful police brutality and unfair treatment of black people by law enforcement. The choking of Eric Garner sparked more protests in New York. Most recently, Baltimore has seen looting, rioting, and both violent and peaceful protests following the death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray after sustaining a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. With protests spreading in different cities around the country, many people may wonder if Philadelphia may be next.
Philly protests in solidarity with Baltimore
On April 30, several hundred individuals in Philadelphia took to the streets in an organized protest to show support for Baltimore and also to speak out against police brutality and unfair treatment in this city. City officials were notified of the plans regarding the “Philadelphia is Baltimore” protest and prepared1 by reassigning police officers, closing the courts early, and similar actions.
Protesters gathered at 4:30 in front of city hall and headed toward Rittenhouse Square. The group headed down Broad Street where some people tried to block traffic by sitting in the road. They then marched on to the federal prison, where they yelled to prisoners “you are not alone” and prisoners responded with flashing lights. The protest went on for several hours.2
Though a police spokesperson stated that police officers were supposed to be primarily concerned with protecting the rights of Philadelphians to peacefully protest, clashes between officers and protesters took place around 7:45 and 8:00 in the evening. Police made several arrests and removed protesters who were believed to be rowdy or physical. The protest naturally dissipated some time later.
Will protests continue?
Though protests were already planned for many other cities including Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California for Friday, May 1st, many residents of Philadelphia wondered whether the protests were over for their hometown. Many signs indicate that Philly may experience repeated or lengthened protests in the coming days and weeks by individuals fighting for their rights to be treated lawfully and fairly by police officers. Even the State Senator and candidate for mayor Anthony H. Williams told the media that people in Philadelphia are “sitting on a powder keg”3 that may explode any minute and result in extended protests in the city.
Similarities between two cities
Baltimore and Philadelphia are similar in many ways. Both cities have a number of black individuals holding powerful political and leadership positions, however disproportionately high incarceration and poverty rates persist. It is no surprise that these circumstances lead to individuals banding together to protest the lack of effort by political leaders to equalize the situation for white and black people in Philly.
Distrust of the police
The protests and riots of the past year have stemmed from incidences involving police brutality and violence without proper justification under the law. Many residents on Philadelphia—especially black individuals—already do not trust the police to protect them and instead fear that police may inflict serious or even fatal injury on them during an encounter for no reason. A large number of black residents further believe they are specifically targeted by law enforcement officers, a belief that is justified based on arrest statistics. Such fear and beliefs cause severe strain on the relationship between civilians and cops and can only increase the potential for violent encounters.
Furthermore, the general trust toward the Philadelphia police has severely declined in recent years, mostly due to the exposure of multiple incidences of widespread corruption and mistreatment of civilians. Such growing distrust of law enforcement can only contribute to residents taking action against wrongful acts by police.
Seeking actual change
The main question now is whether the leaders and candidates in Philadelphia will be smart enough to effectively initiate and continue a meaningful dialogue with dissatisfied residents about concrete change, as officials have failed to do in other cities. Simply making a public statement that leaders want and support change is not enough to satisfy protesters. Instead, current and future politicians should fully demonstrate how they are striving for actual change or they should expect to see numerous protests continuing over the coming weeks and months.
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