Written by Jon Hurdle, Campbell Robertson and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
There is a grim familiarity to it all. In the final days of a bitter election, it is a reprise of the terrible images that the country has come to know all too well this year: the shaky cellphone video, the abrupt death of a Black man at the hands of police. The howls of grief at the scene. The protests that formed immediately. The looting of stores that lasted late into the night.
It began Monday, when two officers confronted Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old with a history of mental health problems. A lawyer for the family said that he was experiencing a crisis that day and that the family told officers about it when they arrived at the scene.
In an encounter captured in video that appeared on social media, Wallace is seen walking into the street in the direction of the officers, who back away and aim their guns at him. Someone yells repeatedly at Wallace to “put the knife down.” The officers then fire multiple rounds. After Wallace falls to the ground, his mother screams and rushes to his body.
Wallace later died of his wounds at a nearby hospital, and the neighborhood exploded in rage. In the days since, dozens have been arrested, cars have been burned, and 53 officers have been hurt. On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf called in the National Guard. On Wednesday, the city declared a 9 p.m. curfew.
The shooting and its aftermath were guaranteed to ratchet up tensions in a country already on edge. The two presidential campaigns weighed in quickly — as expected, given the outsize electoral importance of Pennsylvania.
The White House blamed the “liberal Democrats’ war against the police” for the destruction that followed the protests, in keeping with President Donald Trump’s relentless law-and-order pitch to suburban voters. Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris lamented Wallace’s death and condemned the looting that followed but added that none of this would be solved with a president who fanned “the flames of division in our society.”
And once again, the people in the neighborhood where it all took place were left to consider what had happened and what, if anything, could be done about it.
“I don’t feel like I have a lot of power as an individual,” Khalif Rivers, 30, said Wednesday in the West Philadelphia area where protesters clashed with officers the previous night.
To vote is to believe that problems can be solved, and the election has presented a stark division as to how best solve a litany of national problems, including racial divisions and the coronavirus pandemic.
Rivers, an unemployed photographer, said he was still going to vote. But, he added, “I don’t know if this is me looking for something to hang on to, because no matter who is in office, these things still happen.”
Sgt. Eric Gripp, a spokesperson for the department, said in a statement that investigators were reviewing footage of what happened and that both officers were wearing body cameras.
The officers fired “several times,” said Gripp, who added that “after the man was shot, he fell to the ground.” He continued, “One of the officers drove him to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he died.”
The Philadelphia police have for many years been criticized by community activists for excessive use of force against people of color.
“The department has a long history of abusive behavior, violent behavior and brutality when it comes to residents in this city, and more specifically, when it comes to Black and brown Philadelphians,” said Danitra Sherman, campaigns director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
According to a report submitted to a federal court this year, the ACLU found that Black people in the city are more than 50% more likely to be stopped by police without reasonable suspicion than white people are and 40% more likely to be frisked without reasonable suspicion.
Efforts to strengthen accountability have gained some steam in Philadelphia since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May set off a national outcry over abusive policing practices. On Tuesday, Philadelphia voters will cast ballots on whether to add language to the City Charter calling on the police force to “eliminate the practice of unconstitutional stop and frisk” and will also decide whether to create a Citizens Police Oversight Commission to improve supervision of the department.
In a statement, the city’s police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, said she recognized that video of the shooting “raises many questions. Residents have my assurance that those questions will be fully addressed by the investigation.”
Outlaw added that she had “heard and felt the anger of the community.”
The mayor, Jim Kenney, expressed concern in his own statement: “My prayers are with the family and friends of Walter Wallace. I have watched the video of this tragic incident, and it presents difficult questions that must be answered.”
But the debates about how to improve police accountability are only made more complicated by what happened Tuesday nearly a dozen miles away from where crowds were protesting in Wallace’s name.
At Aramingo Crossings, a shopping mall in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, businesses including Walmart, Lowe’s and Five Below were closed Wednesday after having been looted the night before. Contractors fixed plywood sheets to windows to protect storefronts from any more looting; at Lowe’s, pallets of drywall blocked doorways.
At One Dollar Zone, the manager, Rose Acosta, estimated that about 10% of her stock had either been taken or damaged. “They came and tore our store up. They damaged a lot of items. They took our registers,” she said. She feared it was all going to happen again Wednesday night.
“They just don’t get it,” she said of those who were looting, saying they did not understand whom they were hurting. “They don’t get what they are doing to our city.”
The circumstances of the encounter with Wallace as well as the property destruction that took place across the city from peaceful protests seemed only to further entrench people in their political convictions.
“People at this point have made up their minds,” said Lisa Pirrello Peters, 46, a high school special education teacher in Bucks County, among the suburbs north of Philadelphia that are directly targeted by Trump’s appeals.
Nearly 2 million people in Pennsylvania have already voted, and hundreds of thousands more ballots in the state have been requested but not yet returned.
Peters has friends on both political sides, she said, and the unrest in Philadelphia appeared to have changed no one’s mind: neither the Trump supporters who see this as further reason to get behind his law-and-order messages, nor Biden supporters like herself who are dismayed by the looting but believe that the president is the ultimate source of division.
“They are going to find, on either side, a way that this supports who they’re going to vote for next week,” she said.
But before the protests broke out, before the politicians made statements and the pundits considered national ramifications, there was the individual tragedy of Wallace’s death.
On Wednesday morning at the intersection near where Wallace was shot, a handful of residents stood next to a makeshift shrine of candles, white roses and a few balloons tied to a light pole.
Among them was Tymika Peterson, 50, a social worker. She said the officers should have given Wallace’s mother more time to de-escalate the situation and should have been trained in dealing with people who have mental illness. “That man should not have died that way,” she said.
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