“Here we go again—it’s a Philly Thing” was the message on Philadelphia social media, especially Facebook, where posters reported that the city was once again under siege.
Scattered first reports mentioned a caravan of looters moving from one neighborhood to another: Center City, West Philadelphia, Port Richmond, and then on to the Roosevelt Mall in Northeast Philadelphia. The marauders managed to pillage 18 state-run liquor stores, causing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to close all 48 of its Philadelphia retail outlets. In Center City, plunderers ransacked the Apple store, Footlocker, and Lululemon. Some wore Halloween masks as they grabbed merchandise and were cheered on by Philadelphia Instagram celebrity Dayjia Blackwell, 21, known as “Meatball,” who told her 200,000 followers: “We outside. This is what happens when we get no justice in our city. We terrorize this city!” (Meatball was later arrested when caught stealing herself.)
In Philadelphia these days, random riots in the form of flash mobs occur as a kind of urban ritual—a reminder that law and order can break down at any time. But last week’s riots had a special trigger: the dismissal by a judge of all charges against Philadelphia police officer Mark Dial in the August 14 killing of Eddie Irizarry Jr., 27. Irizarry had complied when police told him to stop after spotting him driving erratically near Willard Street in Kensington, an area recognized as the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast. Irizarry, who never left his car, was shot and killed through a rolled-up window by Officer Dial within five seconds of Dial’s leaving the cruiser. This version of the killing, however, was not the first version reported to the press.
The first version, based on information from the Philadelphia Police Department, had Irizarry exiting his vehicle with a knife and lunging at Dial and another officer. Two days later, outgoing Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw reported that body-camera footage revealed that Irizarry never “exited the car” and was seated when Dial shot him. Irizarry hadn’t moved, though he had been holding a knife, which Officer Dial mistook for a gun.
The question arises: Why the initial false version, especially when every police action involving a shooting is scrutinized with surgical precision, amid lingering (if weakening) calls to “defund the police”? The facts of the case were certainly enough for Judge Wendy Pew, who dismissed the charges, agreeing with defense attorneys that Dial possibly feared for his life, thinking that Irizarry had a gun when in fact he had a knife. The AP reported that body-camera footage at Dial’s preliminary hearing “showed Irizarry holding a knife near his right leg as police approached the stopped vehicle.”
Most press outlets reported that the rioters had no connection to the peaceful protests that occurred earlier that day near City Hall. Acting Police Commissioner John Stanford (who took over after Outlaw’s resignation to accept a new job with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), was at pains to make this point, calling the rioters “a bunch of criminal opportunists.”
Walking through my Port Richmond–Fishtown neighborhood on the first night of rioting, in which 100 people were arrested (the second night was mild by comparison), I saw things Philadelphians are increasingly accustomed to observing: a looted Rite Aid with its lights out and a partially boarded up front door (this particular location had escaped looting in 2020); a shuttered WAWA; and several police vehicles with flashing lights parked outside. Both businesses are located along the Aramingo Avenue corridor, the locus of destruction and mayhem during the George Floyd riots. Farther up Aramingo Avenue, a drive-thru Citizens Bank ATM location had been deactivated, while multiple police helicopters traced figure eights in the sky—a familiar sight in Philly now. Unlike 2020, however, there was no smoke, no explosions, and Mayor Jim Kenney refrained from imposing a curfew. And the streets were nearly empty. Even homeless people had opted to escape to their tents under the I-95 overpass.
Acting Commissioner Stanford said that Philadelphia residents had every right to be angry at what happened, even as those same residents criticized police for not taking proper precautions after Judge Pew’s decision to dismiss charges against Dial. After all, given Philadelphia’s history, riots and thuggery are to be expected. Why didn’t police cover the Center City area with “troops” after the judge’s decision went public?
WHYY reported that police made 52 arrests for burglary and theft and that other counts have been filed against at least 30 people, three of them juveniles. While many residents dismissed the destruction of the 2020 George Floyd riots as an unfortunate consequence of “racial injustice,” the latest episode is leaving a different impression. More people are genuinely angry and upset, yet mixed with these emotions is a touch of sadness at the city’s continued spiral downward.
Photo by GABRIELLA AUDI / Getty Images