Philadelphia has become the latest scene of clashes between police and protesters following the shooting death of a Black man at the hands of police. As Blavity previously reported, two police offers fired multiple shots at 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. as he approaches them with a knife in an encounter captured on video Monday afternoon. The Associated Press reported that Wallace’s family says the man was experiencing a mental health crisis and that they called 911 requesting an ambulance, not police, and that cops should have used non-lethal force to subdue their relative. The city's police union, meanwhile, has defended the shooting as justified.
Wallace’s killing set off two nights of protests that devolved into large-scale looting and clashes between demonstrators and police officers that left at least 90 people arrested and 30 cops injured, according to local ABC affiliate WPVI. The city has since implemented a nighttime curfew and will be bringing in National Guard troops to maintain peace.
The city’s police department has a long history of abuses and using lethal or unnecessary force against Black Philadelphians. Wallace’s killing is just the latest in a long line of incidents and policies that have created tensions between Philadelphia police and Black citizens. The Philadelphia Inquirer has compiled a long, comprehensive timeline of the history of the city’s police and the many incidents of abuse directed towards Black residents.
Here are five of the most relevant and infamous instances of police misconduct, violence and systemic racism that have occurred in Philadelphia prior to Walter Wallace Jr.'s killing.
1. A reign of racist terror from a mayor that was so bigoted, the city was sued for systemic racism
Frank Rizzo remains one of the most controversial figures in Philadelphia history.
Rizzo served as police commissioner from 1967 to 1971, and then as mayor from 1972 until 1980. As Vice magazine reports, the former mayor, nicknamed “The General," used explicitly militaristic language as he waged a war on crime and radical activism which largely targeted Black groups such as the Black Panthers and MOVE as well as Black citizens in general.
At least 162 people were killed by Philadelphia police during the 1970s as Rizzo dramatically increased the size and budget of the police force and pushed aggressive tactics. Rizzo’s administration was so deeply bigoted that the U.S. Department of Justice sued not only Mayor Rizzo and 18 other city officials but also charged the entire city government of systemic racism, the first time that the DOJ ever filed such a suit.
Vice details some of the racist and bigoted comments made by Rizzo, who said that Black Panthers should be “strung up” and ordered his cops during a raid against Black students to “get their black asses.” Rizzo once promised voters that he’d be so tough that “I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a f***t" and in another incident urged voters to “vote white.”
Despite all this, Philadelphia erected a statue of Rizzo in 1998. Fittingly, Rizzo’s statue depicted the mayor raising his right arm with outstretched hand in what looks very much like a Nazi salute. The statue was removed in June after being targeted by protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
2. The bombing of American citizens in Philadelphia cops' war against the "back to nature" MOVE group
The most dramatic, though largely forgotten, instance of police violence came in 1985 when police bombed a house that served as headquarters for the radical Black group MOVE. For years, Philly authorities had clashed with MOVE (not an acronym), a group opposed to modern technology that advocated a “back to nature” style of communal living.
A violent 1978 police raid to evict the group from its compound led to a shootout that left one police officer dead and several other cops and firefighters wounded. Nine MOVE members were sentenced to between 30 and 100 years in prison for the gun battle.
Philadelphia police again attempted to evict MOVE from its new commune on May 13, 1985, leading to another shootout and standoff. This time, authorities ended the showdown by dropping a large, military-style bomb on the house where MOVE was holed up. The attack killed eleven people inside the house, including five children; only one adult and one child inside survived. The fire from the bombing spread throughout the neighborhood, destroying over 60 houses and leaving over 200 people homeless. No one was ever criminally charged for the bombing, perhaps the most brazen attack by government officials against American citizens in the country’s history.
3. Hundreds of thousands being targeted by stop-and-frisk
Although New York City’s stop-and-frisk program is the most notorious example of the policy of illegally searching and harassing primarily Black and Latino young men, Philadelphia implemented a similar policy. Philadelphia’s program was ironically scaled up by a Black mayor, Michael Nutter, who campaigned on the issue ahead of his 2007 election.
Data from the city shows that, in the year 2009 alone, over 250,000 people were subjected to stop-and-frisk; over 70% were Black, and less than 10% of the stops led to an arrest. According to the New York Times, 65 people were killed by police between 2008 and 2013; during a similar time frame, the newspaper reports that 80 percent of police shooting victims were Black. The federal government ordered the city to discontinue stop-and-frisk following a 2010 lawsuit filed by the city’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, the ACLU reports that Philadelphia police continue to use the policy, primarily against Black citizens.
4. Meek Mill’s long fight with the city's criminal justice system
One of the victims of stop-and-frisk and general police excess was rapper Meek Mill, whose 12-year legal ordeal in the city became well-publicized and even inspired a documentary, Free Meek, that Blavity recommended as a “must-watch for young people of color.” Rolling Stone reports that Mill was first convicted of weapons charges in 2008 following a 2007 arrest in which police allegedly “used Meek’s head as a battering ram to open the door” of the rapper’s home
As documented by Rolling Stone, the rapper had a number of run-ins with the police over the following years, including being arrested in 2012 for suspicion of marijuana use (no drugs were found) and several stints in jail or house arrest over parole violations. The 33-year-old sued the city over his 2012 incident, with his lawyers blaming the city’s stop-and-frisk policy for the rapper’s arrest. The North Philadelphia native's legal battles in the city finally came to an end in 2019 with a plea agreement related to the 2008 weapons charge that freed him from any additional charges or jail time. By then, the celebrity attention that his case attracted had served to highlight the racial inequities of Philadelphia's criminal justice system.
5. The attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters by police and vigilantes
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia, which resulted in the removal of the Rizzo statue, was met with violence from Philadelphia police and angry mobs. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that police allegedly stood by and allowed protesters and reporters to be attacked by armed white racist vigilantes in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood. Police in the neighborhood were also caught covering their badge numbers.
There's a cop out here at the Fishtown protest with his badge number covered pic.twitter.com/LNZIHTTzeo
— Emily Guendelsberger (@emilygee) June 2, 2020
Officer Richard Nicoletti was arrested for pulling down the mask of a peaceful protester and pepper spraying her in the face on the I-676 highway.
Overall, the city faces at least three separate federal lawsuits over its tactics against protesters, which included the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets and armored vehicles.
The blow up over Walter Wallace Jr.’s killing therefore represents a last straw for a city with a long history of violence by police against Black Philadelphians over decades and up to the present day. Several police reform measures are on the ballot for November, but much work will need to be done to achieve justice in the eyes of Wallace’s family and protesters and address decades of police violence and misconduct.