Tuesday evening, I was sitting in my living room on a comfy chair near the window. My phone was placed in the horizontal position to get the landscape view for my Zoom conference. I was a panelist on a virtual event sponsored by the Andrea Mitchell Center at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Countdown to Election ‘Day:’ A Bipartisan Roundtable.” The purpose of the panel discussion was to have a “civil” conversation about the upcoming election, and included Michael Smerconish, Ed Rendell, Wharton Professor Eric Orts and yours truly. To my delight, and relief, it was both civil and engaging.
It was precisely that civility that made what happened ten minutes into the event so jarring. As I was making my introductory comments, the sound of helicopter blades chopping through the evening air became embarrassingly obvious. My window was open to get some breeze, but I hadn’t anticipated that the opening credits of M*A*S*H would be taking place outside of my tenth floor condo. I eventually learned that these were police helicopters circling over the neighborhood, watching out for the looting and vandalism that had been taking place elsewhere in West Philadelphia, the Northeast and the Riverwards.
Ah, yes, civility.
We went through this a few months ago, when many Philadelphians decided to protest the death of George Floyd. How nice, I thought then, for the denizens of the city to show some Brotherly and Sisterly love for a Minnesotan they’d never met, who met his end tragically. The problem is that those “protests” quickly morphed into looting and vandalism, violence and mayhem, and no matter how much those who pass for social justice leaders tried to make it seem as if the violence was an exception, not the rule, we who lived with the aftermath of shattered windows, boarded up storefronts, obscene graffiti and filth knew the truth: they came to riot and a “protest” broke out.
Slowly, with achingly cautious steps, the city started to emerge from its fear. The curfews that were nightly expectations in June ended, and people began to take walks in the parks. Stores began to extend their hours of operation. Couples gathered at outdoor restaurant tables, happy to have a place to gather in community (and breathe the exhaust from trucks, but that’s another column). Life, which hadn’t been normal since Corona was just another brand of beer, reinstalled a façade of normalcy.
The problem is that those ‘protests’ quickly morphed into looting and vandalism, violence and mayhem, and no matter how much those who pass for social justice leaders tried to make it seem as if the violence was an exception, not the rule, we who lived with the aftermath of shattered windows, boarded up storefronts, obscene graffiti and filth knew the truth: they came to riot and a ‘protest’ broke out.
But then, just days before a national election, a man named Walter Wallace Jr. decided to commit suicide by cop in West Philadelphia — and Philadelphia plunged back into the now-familiar maelstrom.
There are a lot of reasons that Walter Wallace is dead, and some of them are even attributable to Walter Wallace himself. You do not run at a police officer with a knife and expect him to simply coax you with words that belong better to a social worker or psychologist. An armchair observer might not have taken the same shots that the Philadelphia Police did, but if you are not in that particular situation and that charged moment, you have no right to postulate what should have been done. It was not your life on the line.
But this is bigger than the death of one man. Wallace’s killing triggered another cascade of what some called protests but what looked like, to so many others, riots. Most of the local Philadelphia print media — the “mostly peaceful” brigade — refrained from using the word “rioting” and only grudgingly made reference to the violence, the looting and the plunder that once again rocked Philadelphia neighborhoods and businesses large and small. Instead, the media again focused on the narrative of another Black man killed by another white police officer; whether he was armed at the time was besides the point.
This year has shown us that reflexive violence is as deadly as systemic racism. While Black Lives Matter adherents and social justice activists have tried to tie the uptick in anger, street protest and commercial vandalism to specific names, like Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Jason Blake and George Floyd, it’s pretty clear that no trigger was needed to unleash the anger and hatred that has been simmering for years. This reaction is what has scared so many decent, tolerant human beings. This is why some people have conflated BLM with mayhem. This, in fact, is why someone might choose not to vote for Joe Biden, on this eve of civil destruction, in the most populous city in America’s key swing state.
Regular people should not be forced to live in a place where they must obey a curfew, because the police are told to stand down and stand back; where a District Attorney’s natural sympathies lie with criminals; and where they are told that calling looters ‘animals’ is bigotry, as if the behavior of looting has anything to do with race and not culture.
Years ago, my father Teddy Flowers went down south to Mississippi to register Black voters. He did so as a young lawyer, during the late spring and early summer of 1967. It was a dangerous time and place, and people were voting in the shadow of the KKK. Violence and intimidation were the rule, not the exception. My father told me that he never forgot the faces of the people who came out to vote, knowing that they were placing themselves in the line of fire. Intimidation was real, but so was conviction and courage.
Today, I find it ironic that people are still being intimidated by the threat of violence, a half century after my father left Hattiesburg and Jackson. We may not have brigades of white racists with water hoses telling people they have no right to vote, but we have brigades of protestors in the streets, showing us that life as we knew it is over. Violence, outrage and mob rule with impunity are the new normal. Get used to it — it will only get worse from here.
These protests, so close to a presidential election that has been set up as a referendum on Good and Evil in cartoonish terms, might very well have an impact on people who are afraid of a candidate who refuses to condemn the violence in the streets with the same ferocity that he has condemned the racism in people’s hearts. I know of several people, women all, who have said that they are afraid of how Joe Biden refuses to come out and call out the vandals without qualification. They do not see him as a strong supporter of law and order. They wonder where his outrage is for the shop owner whose livelihood has been destroyed. They are scared to say so out loud for fear of being branded as racists.
I am one of those women, and I am not scared.
Regular people should not be forced to live in a place where they must obey a curfew, because the police are told to stand down and stand back; where a District Attorney’s natural sympathies lie with criminals; and where they are told that calling looters “animals” is bigotry, as if the behavior of looting has anything to do with race and not culture.
Personally, I am all for civil discussions. I had one at that virtual conference the other evening. But I am not about to treat criminals with civility, nor am I about to call them by the names they demand: activists, social justice leaders, influencers, change agents or legitimate voices. Race-baiting, thievery, misrepresentation and preying upon those who simply want to live their lives and run their shops is self-evident, and doesn’t need some cover up by those who know exactly what they are doing, and those who are allied, out of some existential sense of guilt or boredom with the status quo, to their cause.
Respect is earned, not burned out of buildings. Justice is delivered through legal processes, not at the end of a Molotov cocktail. Humanity is realized when people act humanely.
Protests seek change. It would be ironic, would it not, if these protests obtained a change no one could have anticipated.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61