by Tani Madichetti
On May 31, 2020, protesters marched in the streets of Philadelphia, demanding justice for the brutal police killing of George Floyd. Four months later, on October 7, more than a dozen Philadelphians testified at the Philadelphia City Council Public Safety Committee Hearing on police responses to the protests — specifically the police violence on 52nd Street on May 31 and I-676 on June 1. The resolution is printed below:
Resolution #200397: Resolution authorizing the City Council Committee on Public Safety to hold hearings to review the City’s response to protests in support of ending systemic racism in policing and of the Black Lives Matter movement, and to provide residents with a forum to share their experiences and make recommendations for safer and non discriminatory policing.
The testimonials in this three-hour hearing were compelling, emotional, and devastating to hear: residents, protesters, activists, allies, old, young, Black, white all gave their versions of the violent story. But there was a common theme in all of their dialogues: injustice.
Two weeks later, on October 20, the Committee on Public Safety held another hearing, this time allowing Philadelphia’s residents to hear the police administration’s voice. Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and her colleagues spoke about the steps they are taking to prevent further violence by the Philadelphia Police Department, including changes in use-of-force policies, disciplinary consequences for officers, and alternative response usage to better deal with mental health crises. But Philadelphians are not convinced.
Simone Brown, a Temple University senior and victim of police violence during the I-676 attacks on protesters, testified in front of the committee on October 7. Although she is glad that the Philadelphia City Council allowed her and others to speak on their experiences, she says it would be “disappointing and frustrating to know that all of these movements and hearings will not lead to change.”
As a psychology student, some changes Brown would like to see in the Philadelphia Police Department are better methods to evaluate racial biases among police, transparency and accountability for police interactions, and alternatives to policing in situations mental health experts would be better equipped to handle.
Monica Allison, a resident, advocate, third ward committee person, and co-founder of Cobbs Creek Neighbors, gave a testimonial on October 7 on behalf of Philadelphia residents who were hurt by police response to protests on 52nd Street on May 31. When asked about what she made of the police’s dialogue during the October 20 hearing (at which she also testified), she remarked, “We need action in West Philly. We’ve heard all the rhetoric.”
She acknowledges that there has already been dialogue about police reform, especially with regard to police training and other practices Commissioner Outlaw detailed in her testimony. However, Allison argues that there is a “gap” between the implementation of new programs and what she is seeing on the street. In a neighborhood whose police officers took deescalation training, she says she has witnessed those same officers antagonize citizens and fail to implement their training.
Only hours after my interview with Monica Allison, the news broke that Walter Wallace Jr., yet another Black man, was shot by Philadelphia police. Wallace was mentally ill, which his mother told the police as she begged them not to shoot. Allison’s fears rang true: The police department’s alleged efforts to use mental health expertise instead of force did not seem to change the response in the streets. The cost of this mistake? Yet another Black life.
“Unfortunately, we have another incident,” Monica Allison’s text read. I wished her and her family safety amidst the chaos. Her response was dishearteningly on-brand: “Thanks. It’s exhausting.”
Allison is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, and subsequently a recurrent witness to the Philadelphia Police Department’s violence against Black communities. She lived through the 1985 MOVE bombing, where Philadelphia police leveled an entire neighborhood with explosives while attempting to eliminate a radical organization’s compound. She is a mother of Black children, to whom she is forced to give the talk. “That shouldn’t be something we have to do,” she says. “But we do. Every day.”
When asked why she chose to testify, Brown said the following:
I will not allow the Philadelphia police to continue acting like a legalized gang without repercussion, and as a community we should not at all feel comfortable by the life-threatening methods they use daily. … I am ready to see tangible evidence and actions that there will be reform within these institutions. This is what compelled me to testify.
Philadelphians are tired. Tired of words instead of actions. Tired of afterthoughts instead of proactivity. Tired of more violence in response to protests against violence.
“It’s not a process that’s going to be painless,” Allison says. “But change is never painless. And it’s not gonna look pretty because change doesn’t look pretty.”
As protests continue, this time with Walter Wallace Jr. at their center, we will continue to see the aftermath of, and reactions to, decades of pent-up trauma and frustration. While there appears to be increased effort at the local level to respond appropriately to protests, as seen recently by an October 29 vote to ban the use of tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful demonstrators, there is still far more to go to ensure the Philadelphia Police Department prevents further harm to the communities it has sworn to protect. Otherwise, it seems unlikely that this civil unrest will cease.
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