What Philly Cops, Activists Are Thinking Before a Weekend of Protests

Two separate protest marches will unfold on Friday night, with more planned over the weekend.


Protestors marching through Center City on Thursday, July 7th. Image via Twitter

At this point, Philadelphia is well versed in seeing its streets fill up with demonstrators who lead passionate, hours-long marches to protest police shootings of people of color.

A handful have already been staged here this week in the wake of the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The marches were largely peaceful, save for a handful of arrests on Wednesday. But two protests are slated to unfold in North Philadelphia tonight — with more planned for the weekend — and they will be unfolding amid the aftermath of a stunning ambush in Dallas on Thursday night that left five police officers dead after snipers opened fire at the end of protest march through the city’s downtown area. Seven other cops and two civilians were also wounded.

Philly cops and protestors say tensions will running higher than usual, and both sides are wary of a possible escalation to violence. “There are a lot of combustible elements going into tonight, so I’m concerned about what’s going to happen,” said Chris Norris, a journalist and activist. “Whatever happens tonight is going to foreshadow the DNC and RNC. The protests have been elevated and exacerbated by the recent shootings. The police will be on higher alert and paranoid. I hope that it remains peaceful, but won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.”

“We have to keep [the Dallas attack] in the back of our mind,” said Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, who has long overseen the police department’s handling of protests and demonstrations. “We have to keep the officers and the protesters safe. Everyone deserves the right to express themselves in a safe environment. Someone took that away from the police and protestors in Dallas, so we have to be prepared for that possibility.”

The first protest march will begin at 5 p.m. at Broad Street and Erie Avenue and head south to City Hall. A second one, organized by the Philadelphia Coalition for R.E.A.L Justice, will stretch from 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue to 33rd and Lehigh between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The coalition also plans to hold additional marches during the weekend. The gatherings have a title: “Shut It Down: A Weekend of Rage for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.”

“The frustration is at a breaking point,” said Asa Khalif, the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter. “My heart goes out to every Dallas police family member who have lost their loved ones. I have family members who are in law enforcement. I love them, whether they have the uniform on or not. But we cannot turn a blind eye to how we got here: the lack of transparency and prosecution of rogue police officers who abuse black and brown bodies.”

Khalif, whose cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown, was fatally shot by a Philadelphia police officer in 2014, is one of the most recognizable faces of the local protest movement. He said he received death threats online in the wake of the Dallas attack, but will still show up at this weekend’s marches. “We can’t allow one tragedy to overshadow another.”

Earlier today, Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement on the deaths of the Dallas police officers — and Sterling and Castile — that called on Philadelphians “not to react in hate, anger or violence, but instead to grieve with the nation by listening to one another.”

“Maybe we can talk and get to some sort of understanding,” Khalif said. “Hopefully Kenney can make that happen.”

Of course, there have been similar calls for peace and understanding during other moments of turmoil during the last few years as the Black Lives Matter movement has spread across the country, and police departments have been compelled to address longstanding concerns over transparency and use of force. But the boiling anger that many clearly feel tells you that the changes we’ve seen so far aren’t enough.

Philadelphia police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said the department closely monitors social media, and is well aware that the dialogue around this issue has reached a fever pitch. The pendulum swings are wild — some people express sadness and dismay over the deaths of the Dallas cops, Sterling and Castile, while others celebrated the loss of life and hurled insults at one another.

“This is my personal opinion: People have to try — and I’m talking about everybody, police officers included — to step out of your perspective and just look at this from the human perspective. How many lives have been lost in the last three days? What can we do to fix that? It’s not just about who’s to blame,” Stanford said.

“How do we make sure [the Sterling and Castile] incidents don’t happen? How do we make sure Dallas doesn’t happen? That’s what people need to be thinking, instead of just inciting more violence.”

Stanford said the police department can handle the logistical challenges of juggling two protests in the same night and handling marches five days in a row. “Hopefully we don’t have any issues. You can’t get anything accomplished when a situation gets out of hand.”

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