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I was awakened at 8 a.m. Wednesday by a worried call from a good friend, journalist and radical prairie activist Michael Caddell in Kansas. “Dave!” he said urgently, “Is Philly burning?”
I groggily asked him what he meant? Had the closed Sunoco tank farm and refinery in South Philadelphia suddenly exploded into an inferno again?
“It’s all over the news,” he said. “Even Democracy Now!. Fires burning, looting, and 30 police injured!”
I flipped open my computer and went to the digital Philadelphia Inquirer. There was no story about the city burning. No banner headline about dozens of Philly cops injured. Just a report (10/28/20) on the “mostly peaceful” protests by “hundreds of people” over the outrageous police shooting death Monday of Walter Wallace, Jr.
Wallace was a 27-year-old Black father having a mental health crisis, whose family had called 911 for an ambulance. Instead of an ambulance, they got two cops who, immediately on arriving in their squad car, pulled out their sidearms. Soon after, they shot Wallace over ten times, killing him, “because,” they said, he didn’t drop a small knife he was holding in his hand. This although he was at least 10 feet from them at the time, and his mother was pleading with the cops to back off and let her calm him down.
It was an event that had happened two days earlier, and I knew there had been protests over it, but not widespread unrest.
The Inquirer article mentioned a protest by hundreds of people from the neighborhood and supporters at the police precinct in West Philadelphia where the shooting had occurred, and also that some thousand people had gathered on the other side of the 1.6 million–person city, in its Port Richmond neighborhood. There they had broken into shops in a strip mall and a Walmart at the intersection of Castor and Aramingo Avenues. But aside from a police car and a few dumpsters set on fire, there was no mass unrest, and no torching of stores or other buildings.
Nothing like the uprising and conflagration last summer in Minneapolis following the police murder of George Floyd, or even like the widespread break-ins in the shopping district in Philly’s Center City and other cities last summer in response to Floyd’s videotaped strangulation.
What was going on? Why Mike’s anxious morning call?
It turns out that protests against the police shooting of yet another young Black man (an all-too-common event in Philadelphia, where there have been 400 fatal and non-fatal shootings by police, mostly of Black men, over the 2008–18 period), while reported fairly calmly and accurately in the local media, were being played up as another major urban explosion in the national media.
Perhaps what got their attention was Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to send a few hundred Philadelphia National Guard soldiers to, as he put it, “protect the right to peacefully assemble and protest while keeping people safe.”
The National Guard troops were deployed in the city during the protests over Floyd’s murder, and their presence actually had a calming impact by most accounts. That may be because the Guard units are more racially integrated than the Philadelphia police force, and because they are better trained about not resorting to their weapons as readily as Philly cops. Those cops seemed to be at their aggressive best in these latest protests, reportedly tackling and hitting protesters with batons.
Much of the national media reported that 30 officers were injured during the Tuesday night police actions at the protest in West Philadelphia. But some neglected to mention, as the Philadelphia Inquirer (10/27/20) reported, that only one officer, a woman hit by a speeding pickup truck that had rounded a corner into a wall of cops, breaking her leg and causing other unspecified injuries, was still in the hospital. The other 29 officers, who had reportedly suffered minor injuries from thrown objects, were simply examined, treated if necessary and discharged.
Even the New York Times (10/28/20) omitted the detail about the lack of severity of the injuries — a serious oversight or reporting failure. (An earlier article mentioned that the police had been “treated for cuts and bruises,” but that information dropped out in later reporting.)
Most of the national reporting was more deliberately inflammatory and even frightening, reminiscent of the coverage of the major unrest in Portland, New York and other cities that followed the Floyd killing.
“Looters in Philadelphia Ransack Stores, Attack Reporter During Second Night of Chaos,” blared Fox News (10/28/20). (A reporter for the Blaze, Elijah Schaffer, claimed he was “jumped” by people he described as “BLM rioters,” said to be “looting a dozen stores.”)
The Boston Globe (10/28/20), under the rather overheated headline “National Guard Responds as Protests Over Walter Wallace, Jr. Killing Engulf Philadelphia,” contradicted Governor Wolf’s explanation for the Guard deployment, reporting instead, with no attribution, that the soldiers were there “to protect property” and to “quell unrest.” The injuries of 30 police officers were again mentioned in the Globe story, but not the minor nature of 29 of them.
ABC News’ headline (World News Tonight, 10/27/20) was “Turmoil in Philadelphia After Death of Walter Wallace, Jr.”
The significance of the widespread overhyping of this Philadelphia story in the national media is, of course, that Pennsylvania, with its 20 electors, is widely viewed as the key state that will determine who wins the November 3 presidential election. President Donald Trump was quick to condemn the protests in Philadelphia, with the White House (Forbes, 10/28/20) calling the protests “the most recent consequence of the liberal Democrats’ war against the police.”
The Trump administration also said it “stands proudly with law enforcement, and will send federal resources to end the riots if asked.”
It’s likely that Wolf’s quick decision to dispatch some National Guard troops to Philadelphia had more to do with preventing Trump from doing what he did in Portland—sending in armed federal officers against the wishes of local authorities and provoking more violence—than with assisting in riot control, which appears not to have been necessary to any great degree.
Late Wednesday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney declared a city-wide curfew beginning at 9 p.m., and as of midnight, things appeared calm in the city.
There is widespread anger at the police for this latest police killing, and calls for an end to police using weapons to deal with mentally ill persons, but Philadelphia is not ablaze or in chaos.
I’m going to bed.