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What a police-sanctioned mob in Fishtown says about systemic racism

June 2, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
Nearly 150 people, almost all of them men and very nearly all of them white, milled about Berks Street and Girard Avenue in the Fishtown neighborhood Monday night. Many had baseball bats and other household tools of force.

It was after 6 p.m., when an emergency city curfew was already in place. It, too, was during the throes of an on-going pandemic, when public health advisements still recommended social distancing. They gathered in response to rumors that some undefined splinter group of rioters was coming for the neighborhood — rioters who never appeared. They weren’t spreading themselves out to protect storefronts necessarily. It looked like everything I understand a vigilante group to look like.

The peaceful protests this weekend following the video of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, by the hands and knee of a police officer had escalated into state-sanctioned violence and widespread vandalism across the nation. In Center City Monday, breath-taking crowds mobilized — and shocking force was used by police.

Explosions, sirens and police dispatch calls of looting rang out across West Philadelphia, Kensington to Northeast Philadelphia and many residential neighborhoods in between. Many of these neighborhoods impacted had bigger Black populations, the communities that disproportionately face police violence. In contrast, Fishtown is whiter and wealthier, very much including its working class origins.

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Against a strict quarantine for personal reasons, I walked to that stretch of Girard Avenue from my block in Fishtown, where I’ve lived since 2009. Along the way, I walked by neighbors sitting on their steps in the sun on Montgomery Avenue. I turned to Berks Street to avoid the back of the 26th Police District, then unsure how strictly the 6 p.m. curfew would be being enforced.

There I first came upon the tens and tens of men, resembling a kind of brute squad. I crossed Girard Avenue to take in the sight of that mob waiting nearby a barricaded police district, with a dozen officers outside. Around 6 p..m, the salient point to me was not that it was yet tense but rather how comfortable the two groups were together.

Later there was a kind of standoff between this brute squad of “old” Fishtown and others from “new” Fishtown who brought Black Lives Matter and related signs — dispersed before 10 p.m.. The two groups neatly ordered themselves: “old” Fishtown on the side of the Police District headquarters, and “new” Fishtown on the opposite side. Some from the brute squad assaulted WHYY producer Jon Ehrens, used at least one slur and tore a Black Lives Matter sign — truly deplorable acts. But as heinous as those acts are, there is an uglier and more insidious truth.

The simple narrative is to pit “older” residents and “newer” residents against each other, the racists and the gentrifiers, a favorite past time of residents and chroniclers of this place.

But rather than that divide across the avenue, of “old” and “new,” which is tale as old as time, a more lasting story of this era was on one side of Girard Avenue. That story is why more than a hundred men, some with baseball bats, were allowed to grow in number at all, after a curfew, during a pandemic and alongside a police force.


Residents near that intersection in Fishtown called the 26th Police District, and even 911, about the bat-wielding mob — full disclosure, even residents I live with. But police representatives simply did not seem to understand why men with bats seemed a threat. It was reminiscent of the contingent of white men that had formed around a Target in South Philadelphia — which some of them described as a symbol of order. Cops there, too, took a muted view of those gatherings.

This cop perspective was that the threat was outside, the unknown and foreign. In contrast, these were men who looked like them, men they might even know. These men were protectors, not threats —because the viewpoint was white and familiar.

It would always be so much easier if everything came back to overt racists who tear Black Lives Matter signs. Some of them were there. But more of them are the kind of guy who would laugh off their friend tearing a Black Lives Matter sign. More are the kind of guy who still doesn’t quite understand why a hundred men with baseball bats could feel more menacing than protestors.

Overt racism makes for juicy Instagram video. Structural racism grinds on lethargically, menacingly and ceaselessly. We need to confront both.


Philadelphia Uprising 2020

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