The start of the pandemic felt surreal. The unsettling, anxious feeling I had felt multiplied by the unfamiliar setting I found myself in….
Just a week prior to the essential shutdown of the country, I mean exactly a week, I sat in my living room, mocking those I had overheard earlier that day discussing the potential shit storm approaching. My roommates Akshay, Brandon and I had been planning to drive Akshay across the state back home to Pittsburgh later that week. The school was sending us home, a move we thought, at the time, was startling and profoundly unnecessary. Very few cases had been reported, I said. Barely any in Philadelphia, they replied. Through reassuring downplay of the young peculiar virus called COVID-19, we convinced each other not to worry. Our attempt at ignorant bliss, however, would be challenged increasingly as the days rolled on.
The day we left Philadelphia, we were about twice as worried as the day we sat in the living room mocking those worriers. I was starting to think they were more fortune tellers than worriers. Despite our worry, the first day of our trip went well. I enjoyed the long drive, the music, and especially the destination. Pittsburgh proved to be a fantastic city. Smaller, cleaner, more scenic, and certainly more intimate than where we had came from. That night, we attend a get together at a neighbor of Akshay’s. I counted eleven people at the event. Who knew the next day that would be illegal?
We woke up the next morning to the announcement of a global pandemic, which prompted a nationwide shutdown. Sure, Italy and Spain needed it, but did we? And did they have to announce it when im 6 hours away from home?
Needless to say, our plan to stay another night was cut short. We packed our things, said our goodbyes, and wen on our way. The farms and rolling hills that were so beautiful the way up lost their charm. Now, I was about 10 times as nervous as I was that day.
I get a call from my mom, says she can’t get hand sanitizer up our way. She asked if i could stop on the way back. I told her I would try and I did. 6 times. No hand sanitizer from Pittsburgh to Philly it seemed. Maybe those fortune tellers were right.
I was relieved when we got back to Philly, though I’ll admit it had a different vibe than before. I guess I’d have to get used to it. Turns out, as the next year and change rolled on, I’d be in for a whole lot more.
My topic, police brutality perpetrated by the Philadelphia Police Department, not only has significant connections to current events, but was in fact inspired by those very events. Anyone not living under a rock has bore witness to the atrocities committed by police upon African Americans in the United States. The prevalence of these killings, combined with increased viral footage of them, has spawned international movements, thousands of protests, and countless debates about race issues in the U.S. Transcending just police violence, movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Stop Asian Hate have prompted important discussions, and hopefully action, regarding race relations. Themes explored in my project will parallel those embodied in these movements. They include accountability, justice, tolerance/acceptance, and history. The audience I hope to reach with this project are not the people who agree with me. There is no point in preaching to them. I think it is more important this project reaches those who will go in disagreeing with me. My goal is to present facts and evidence to support my claim, followed by my opinion on the facts and evidence, and then finally a plea to, at the very least, know the facts. In my best case scenario, my plea will reach deeper than that, and hopefully lead to a better understanding of the issue as a whole.
It is very important, not only as a historian but as a human, to be subjective when approaching historical topics. In other words, it’s essential to be aware of who you are, where you come from, and how it applies to the topic at hand. I personally believe every single individual person on this planet has a unique perspective on life, shaped by their experiences. However, one must understand that because of this, not everyone will agree wholly on any issue. For my topic of violence and abuse of authority perpetuated by the Philadelphia Police Department, this is especially relevant. As a white man from an upper middle class suburban upbringing, I try to keep my privilege in mind when I formulate an opinion on this topic. Although I personally have had very few negative encounters with law enforcement, it is obvious to see many others have. It is also obvious to see that of those who have a negative perception of law enforcement, many are people of color. This is not a mere coincidence. Based on historical research and contemporary observations, it is clear to me that this distrust is the result of centuries of abuse, mistreatment, and profiling of people of color at the hands of police. In Philadelphia, I had no issue finding examples of this. In fact, it was alarming how many there were. So as I continue my research, I keep my privilege in mind, because in the grand scheme of things my personal experience means nothing. However the collective experience of an entire group of people does.
My Research Question: Do the examples of abuse of authority perpetuated by the Philadelphia Police Department reflect the individuals who took part, the leadership of the department, or the organization as a whole?
For my final project, I have decided that I will make a podcast episode where the overarching topic of discussion is the issues surrounding race and the Philadelphia Police Department. My podcast will have several parts dedicated to a different approach to the discussion. First, I will use my sources to give a brief history of the PPD, their leaders and ideologies throughout its existence. Second, I will discuss several high profile cases of misconduct among the department, and the events/reactions that follow. Finally, I will give my personal take on the issue, hopefully to answer or at the very least better understand my research question. In doing so, I hope to put my experiences with police, as a white man from the suburbs, into perspective, while attempting to make sense of who can be held accountable when police abuse their power.
Secondary Source 1: “The Burning of Rebellious Thoughts; Move as Revolutionary Black Humanism-This source contains an evaluation of the MOVE bombing, and gives a background on the organization and the events leading up to the bombing. I hope that this source will help me understand the public reaction to the MOVE bombing, specifically amongst African Americans, and the thought processes behind black power movements.
Citation: “‘Both Spectacular And UNREMARKABLE:” a Letter to the United Nations on Police Violence in Philadelphia,” December 9, 2020. https://www.aclupa.org/en/UN-report.
Secondary Source 2: Dirty Work: Police and Community Relations and the Limits of Liberalism in Postwar Philadelphia-This secondary source will help me to look at both the public response to police violence through civilian review, and the internal response of the department.
Citation: Schneider, Eric C., Christopher Agee, and Themis Chronopoulos. 2020. “Dirty Work: Police and Community Relations and the Limits of Liberalism in Postwar Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History 46 (5): 961–79. doi:10.1177/0096144217705497.
Primary Source 1: Both Spectacular And UNREMARKABLE:” a Letter to the United Nations on Police Violence in Philadelphia-This source, a recent one on the George Floyd protests during the summer of 2020 and the police response, will help me answer my research question by giving me specific, recent examples of police misconduct, and the way in which both the public and department reacted.
Primary Source 2: Philadelphia Inquirer articles from the 1950’s-1960’s-by using articles from the height of the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s, will give me information about specific events during an important time period, and how they contributed to shaping the movement
Primary source 3: Federal Surveillance of African Americans, 1920-1984-I will look at the federal governments response to events like the civil rights movement, and their surveillance of certain black leaders who’s ideology shaped the civil rights movement. While this does not give me specific information about police violence in Philadelphia, it will be useful in helping me understand the federal governments role in policing, and the way in which these black leaders had influence.
This week, we read ‘Venus in Two Acts” by Dr. Saidiya Hartman. She writes of the absence of narratives and accounts of enslaves people, how there story was not told. Her example is the story of Venus, one of two girls on board the slave ship “Recovery” who were killed by the captain John Kimber. We know the story of the trial, and we know that John Kimber was acquitted on both counts. Despite this, we know next to nothing about Venus, aside from her name and her fate. This is where her story, and the stories of countless other slaves, normally end. Without the ability to read or write, the stories of them remain untold. This tragic halt leaves those looking back with many questions, concerns, and curiosities about the lives of those enslaved, despite the overwhelming desire to know the whole truth. This is what leads Dr. Hartman to picture them in an alternate reality, in a free society. She says, “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them. So it is tempting to fill in the gaps and to provide closure where there is none” It is pleasant to think of these two girls in a better place, where the atrocities committed upon them never existed. However, this is not and never will be the case. To me, I see this as very important. Although we do now know the whole story of most enslaved people, we cannot romanticize their lives with fiction. In doing so, we create a false sense of the reality of slavery. It is important to understand and never forget the horrible, inhumane period where Africans were enslaves, abused, tortured and murdered, no matter how tempting it is to pretend it wasn’t as terrible as it was.
Source: “The Burning of Rebellious Thoughts; Move as Revolutionary Black Humanism
Citation: Floyd-Thomas, J.M. 2002. “The Burning of Rebellious Thoughts; MOVE as Revolutionary Black Humanism.” Black Scholar 32 (1): 11. doi:10.1080/00064246.2002.11431166.
Basic Info: This article is a secondary source which analyzes the history, ideology, and influence of the MOVE organization. Additionally, it covers their strained relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department and middle class whites, as well as the mixed reception they had with their neighbors in West Philadelphia. Finally, it details the tragic events of may 13th, 1985, when the PPD sieged and eventually bombed the MOVE house, which resulted in a large fire that burned down the entire block, leaving 11 dead and 250 homeless.
Close Reading: This article paints move in a very different light than most media. They reject their label as “terrorists” and instead use the term “revolutionaries”. I tend to agree with the latter. Although most of society saw them as pests, they had little reason to. They lived, worked, and prayed in a way that strayed from the norm, but none that was harmful to those around them. This would be normally be accepted, if not tolerated in America. But they were poor and black, living in poverty stricken West Philadelphia, so of course people took issue. They were strong willed, and defied those who told them to live by their standards. In retaliation for this, the PPD bombed them, killing 11 of 13 members.
Archival Context: This source is from a 2002 edition of Black Scholar, and contains a plethora of important information regarding the history of MOVE.
Broader Historical Context: The MOVE organization is one of the most famous examples of not only revolutionary black thought, but of violence against African Americans by the PPD. MOVE members were heavily inspired by Malcolm X, and MOVE continues to inspire black groups looking to advance themselves in society. Additionally, it shows the persistence of police violence in Philadelphia, and the failure of the department, or individual officers, to be held accountable.
Source Citation: “‘Both Spectacular And UNREMARKABLE:” a Letter to the United Nations on Police Violence in Philadelphia,” December 9, 2020. https://www.aclupa.org/en/UN-report.
S: The scope, or purpose of this article was to file a formal complaint by the United Nations against the Philadelphia Police Department. The complaint was written after the Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia, where numerous videos and eyewitnesses recount use of excessive force and violence against the BLM protestors, while providing support and empowerment to armed groups of mostly white counter-protestors.
A: the argument being made here is that The PPD needs to be held accountable for vicious misuse of authority, and the suppression of those exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
S: This source is extremely significant. It involves two very important and influential organizations; the ACLU and the UN. In filing the report, it put the PPD on blast worldwide, and hopefully will contribute to change, or at the very least accountability,
E: There is ample amounts of evidence to support the complaint. This includes eyewitness accounts, video evidence, and severe bodily damage to name a few.
The topic that stood out to me, and the one I will be pursuing, is the history of police violence in Philadelphia. I will use several questions to guide my research, and the writing process. These include:
- Why do the officers involved rarely face consequences?
- Does the history of no consequences motivate officers to use violent fore, or at the very least convince them what they’re doing isn’t wrong?
- How can officers be held more accountable?
there are three topics that I am interested in pursuing for my final project. My first choice is to focus on the history of brutal and racially motivated practices by police in the city of Philadelphia. Since the inception of the police force here in 1830, there are countless cases of police wrongdoing and misconduct, with many incidents resulting in the death of an innocent person. Despite this, only one officer has ever been found guilty, and even he received an extremely lenient sentence. Another possible topic is the history of Native Americans in the Philadelphia area. An often overlooked group, they have faced discrimination since white people first arrived in the area, and it persists to this day. One last possible topic I am considering is the rich cultural history of minorities in Philadelphia. I like this one because there is much to be said about the contributions people of color have made to Philly, including art, music, athletics to name a few. Also, while the other two potential topics focus on the negative treatment of minority groups in Philadelphia, this one would instead look at the positive contributions they have made, while still of course keeping in mind the troubled history they have experienced.