As Derek Chauvin’s trial draws to a close in Minneapolis, Philadelphia is among many cities girding itself for a repeat of last year’s rioting. It now seems likely that if Chauvin receives anything less than the maximum “life sentence without the possibility of parole,” Philadelphia will experience a replay of the looting and disorder that gripped the city last June after the death of George Floyd, and again in October after the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.
In Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section near Aramingo Avenue, where the bulk of the looting occurred last June, some businesses are already boarding up in anticipation of violence. Many of these same business owners have met with the 24th Police District to make safety plans. At the city’s request, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency, activating the National Guard. “This declaration allows the commonwealth to take preemptive steps to ensure the safety of our fellow Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said.
In a city still recovering from the 2020 riots, the emphasis is now on prevention. But will it work?
In March 2021, the New York Times published a retrospective on how police mishandled Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the U.S. The opening paragraphs mention Philadelphia: “Police sprayed tear gas on a crowd of mainly peaceful protesters trapped on an interstate who had nowhere to go and no way to breathe.”
Anyone unfamiliar with the June and October riots in Philadelphia would have come away from the Times article thinking that the city was rife with police abuse. Yet on May 30, 2020, at the first George Floyd protest at the city’s Municipal Services Building, protesters hurled bottles at police (who were not wearing helmets or shields), set a squad car on fire, and broke windows in City Hall. For the next three or four nights, looters and rioters held sections of the city hostage, because police were unable to keep the peace.
The Times quotes independent investigators who claimed that “police did not understand how angry people were” and that “For decades, criminal justice experts have warned that warrior-like police tactics escalate conflict at protests instead of defusing it.” The investigators urged police departments to work with community organizers and enlist the expertise of activists in dealing with civil unrest.
As if heeding this advice, the Philadelphia Police Department Community Relations Unit recently instructed district captains to coordinate with community groups ahead of any possible lawlessness after the Chauvin verdict. Philadelphia chief inspector Altovise Love-Craighead even reached out to local community organizations willing to work with the police during “any civil unrest that might be planned for the foreseeable future.”
The chief inspector’s olive branch, however, was met with scorn from an activist at 5th Square, a city advocacy group, who said that the police outreach “could encourage the vigilantism also seen last year, in which armed groups of mostly white men patrolled for looters and, in some instances, assaulted innocent people.”
The so-called vigilantism of these “mostly white men” (a phrase meant to invoke “white supremacy”) came after days of police incompetence in handling the rioting and looting, which had extended from Center City into the Port Richmond neighborhood of upper Aramingo Avenue, where a large number of businesses and strip malls are located.
On multiple nights, neighborhood residents heard the sound of explosives, police sirens, and gunfire, despite the mayor’s week-long, citywide curfew. The ongoing rioting caused many to fear that the mob was about to infiltrate residential areas. With no police on hand, vigilante groups—made up of long-time residents with generational ties to the neighborhood—formed to protect the area.
Protesters accused these vigilantes of “assaulting innocent bystanders” or using “bad words” during the contentious exchanges between the two groups. Meantime, looters had already caused millions of dollars in property damage throughout the city.
Other attempts by the Philadelphia Police Department to reach out to registered community groups prior to the Chauvin verdict inspired one local activist to deride the whole thing as “a joke.” Local activist Devren Washington called the police outreach “disingenuous” and predicted that many would rebuff it, Plan Philly reported.
An independent report by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart faulted the city for its handling of last year’s riots, blaming both Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney for the lack of preparedness. The report found that the police department “lacked the manpower and transportation to arrest looters, allowing the looting to continue without challenge for hours.”
Regarding the Chauvin verdict, Outlaw predicts that “emotions will run high regardless of the verdict” and that “The Philadelphia Police Department is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of individuals to peacefully assemble and protest, but we also want to ensure that any demonstration activity that happens is done in a safe and lawful manner.”
Business owners in Port Richmond, Center City, and West Philadelphia are not so sure that protests will be conducted “in a safe and lawful manner.” Jabari Jones, head of the 2,000-member West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, told the African-American-owned Philadelphia Tribune that a number of West Philadelphia business owners have not been able to make repairs and reopen after last year’s riots, and that he doesn’t think the city will be “able to respond any better than the last go-around.”
“A large portion of our businesses would not be able to recover from another bout of civil unrest,” Jones said.