The fatal police shooting of 27-year old Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia has set off another round of mass looting, arson, and violence. Wallace, who had a long criminal history and evident mental problems, was confronted by two police officers who ordered him repeatedly to put down the knife that he was wielding. Wallace refused to drop the knife, charged the officers, and was shot multiple times. The shooting sparked looting and vandalism in and around West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street corridor, where the 18th District Police District is located.
The West Philadelphia riots accelerated into a fever pitch, resulting in injuries to 30 police officers and necessitating the hospitalization of 12 others. Officers managed to arrest 30 people as the riots spread throughout West Philadelphia, where ATMs were destroyed and businesses looted, including a Rite Aid, several clothing stores, and a restaurant. Newsweek reported that over 1,000 people ransacked and looted stores like Walmart and Footlocker in the Port Richmond section of the city.
Police cars were set on fire, and rioters at one point chased police after pelting them with bricks and light bulbs. Rioting then spread out from West Philadelphia into other areas of the city, namely the Fishtown-Port Richmond neighborhood along Aramingo Avenue, where substantial damage was inflicted on many stores. Even unaffected businesses along Aramingo Avenue boarded up in anticipation of increased rioting. These lockdown measures affected thousands of residents who suddenly found their local gas station or bank out of commission and covered in plywood. In a replay of the riots last June, Pennsylvania National Guard units were also deployed.
District Attorney Larry Krasner and Philadelphia Police Chief Danielle Outlaw promised a full investigation into the shooting. Krasner praised peaceful demonstrations but said nothing specific about the mayhem and violence. Mayor Jim Kenney, after a lengthy statement promising to investigate the police officers involved in the shooting, later added a much softer postscript directed at the rioters: “Vandalism and looting is not an acceptable face of First Amendment expression.” But he did not condemn the disorder or promise to stop it.
On the second day of rioting, Outlaw stated, “I have directed the Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Unity to begin its investigation . . . While at the scene this evening, I heard and felt the anger of the community. Everyone involved will forever be impacted . . . I also plan to join the Mayor in meeting with members of the community and members of Wallace’s family.” Outlaw’s statement contained no mention of the community suffering the ill effects of smashed-up businesses and boarded-up banks.
Most local media outlets also minimized the vandalism and violence. Broad + Liberty, one of the few conservative voices in the city, lambasted the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headline, “Tense, hours-long protests erupted in West Philadelphia after police fatally shot a man” because it neglected to point out that the man in question was armed and charging the officers. The Inquirer jumped ahead of the results of a police investigation when it declared that Wallace’s killing was part of “190 years of brutality against Black people in Philadelphia.” Such editorial insertion into reporting is what partisan media today call “context.”
Just days before the riots, the Philadelphia city council approved a bill banning police from using tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets on demonstrators. Law Enforcement Today reported that the experts whom the council consulted about police reform after the June riots testified that chemical agents can lead to glaucoma, burns to the lungs, blindness, and respiratory failure.
Radical progressive councilmember Helen Gym, widely considered a future mayoral contender, commented on the chemical-agent ban. “In banning the police use of less lethal munitions in response to demonstrations, we are answering the calls of our constituents. . . . Residential neighborhoods are not warzones. Demonstrators are not enemy combatants. This is the first step in working with our communities to build a new model for public safety that is driven by their needs and their vision for the future.”
But residential neighborhoods have become warzones, as demonstrated by the riots in West Philadelphia and all along Aramingo Avenue in the city’s Port Richmond section. True, demonstrators are not enemy combatants—but neither are rioters demonstrators. Anarchists, looters, and common criminals made a choice to engage in mayhem. Philly police should use whatever means are at their disposal to restore order.
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