This may be the most difficult column that I’ve ever written in the 57 years I’ve been at this job for this newspaper. I’m sitting at my desk trying to write a column a week before it will be published. The challenge is clear. Seven days doesn’t seem like a long time, but today it seems like an eternity.
Everything I see from the window of my eighth-floor Center City apartment looks normal. Like any weekday. But in Philadelphia — in the big cities of America — it’s anything but normal. National Guard troops arrived here yesterday. The peace is fragile. The city is on edge. Already stressed from the three-month grip of a pandemic has been followed by the outrageous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We sit on a racial powder keg. The question is whether we can keep it from exploding again. The answer is in whether we are compassionate and wise enough this time to finally address racial injustice.
Complicating our ability to do what is right is that peaceful protests have sometimes been hijacked by hooligans who loot and burn. Their actions have emboldened racists from the president on down with the excuse for using tear gas and rubber bullets on even those whose only crime is in exercising their First Amendment rights. Law enforcement’s failure to stop the looting has allowed armed vigilantes to take to the streets. Our democracy is being pushed to its limits.
Police are trained to deal with protests without adding to the violence they are there to prevent. And when even police fail, the adequacy of their training comes into question. But there’s never an excuse for police officials to abdicate their responsibility and defer to untrained citizens. With the addition of National Guard troops, there’s no reason in the future for a repeat of armed civilians standing in front of THE PHILADIUM. There’s even less reason for cops to be high-fiving wannabe vigilantes. The scenes we saw here in South Philly and Fishtown were frightening in their implication, not reassuring.
In my recent walk through Center City, I saw and heard some things that were frightening. And some that were hopeful. Angry racial arguments on street corners … outside a store, an owner attempting to power wash F—K THE POLICE off his sidewalk. He eventually gave up. F—K THE POLICE remains clearly on that sidewalk … a VERIZON store that was hit hard by vandalism, is open again — with a sign on the window saying that all cash has been transfered to another unnamed location … Di Bruno’s at 18th and Walnut remained stubbornly open — almost defiantly so — for business, offering free food and drink to the police … Cops in the area are without face masks. The threat of COVID-19 seems at least momentarily forgotten in the upheaval.
I struggle to gain some insight from the peaceful protests that have sometimes morphed into violence. Has the looting served to shift the focus from the horrific killing of George Floyd? I have no doubt that it has. Whether the chaos in the streets will completely overwhelm the message of racial injustice depends upon how quickly the hell-raisers can be weeded out from the peaceful protesters. That may seem unfair, but when confronted with violence, the public always chooses calm.
In my view, the makeup and motives of the protesters are more complex than have been portrayed. The crowd is not made up of either just “thugs” or social activists acting out their anger at systemic injustice. I believe there are three types of people inhabiting these protests — the peaceful marcher who seeks justice reform, the protester who acts out of anger and tosses rocks at cops and spray paints buildings and the hooligan who is just interested in enhancing his/her sneaker collection. While I can understand the righteous anger of some of the protesters, it’s come at a price. Tossing bottles and rocks damaged THE CAUSE. As for the looters, they should never be dignified by calling them anything less. And it’s the responsibility not only of law enforcement, but of the organizers of the peaceful protests to root them out.
There are hopeful signs here in Philadelphia that the leaders of the protests are taking charge. In Center City, recent protests have been peaceful. Organizers have proposed specific reforms to Gov. Tom Wolf. These hoped-for changes recognize that the problems of racial injustice are systemic. It won’t be easy getting needed change from Harrisburg where rural politicians are prone to resist change.
The civil rights protests of the ‘60s succeeded because of the extraordinary leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s success depended on the discipline imposed on the protesters who refused to retaliate. The sight of Bull Connor and his men using power hoses and snarling dogs on helpless protesters touched the heart of a nation. In much the same way, the video showing a Minneapolis cop kneeling on George Floyd until the life was choked out of him has aroused our collective conscience.
There is much yet to be done in Philadelphia to rectify our sins of the past. To our credit, we didn’t wait for protests before beginning to implement changes in our justice system.
Dr. King believed “the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes — and Spike Lee might’ve added, “If we do the right thing.”
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