Image via Lauren Rowello G. Lamar Stewart and son
Image via Lauren Rowello

“This is really about what Black and brown people have faced for hundreds of years in the country.”

G. Lamar Stewart, a former Philadelphia police officer, stood with his youngest son in a crowd outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The two joined thousands during one of the first protests in the city against police brutality while demanding justice for George Floyd, a Black man who died in May after a now former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, suffocating him to death. 

Americans in more than 300 cities have held protests since Floyd’s death, and thousands continue to march in Philadelphia with numbers growing by the day. Authorities estimated that 8,500 people filled the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art toward City Hall on Saturday. 

Stewart, who is Black, said he joined a recent rally in part because of his children. “This is really about what Black and brown people have faced for hundreds of years in the country,” he said. “It’s good to see different generations and walks of life coming together to stand in solidarity for Black lives. As the father of two boys, it’s given me a certain level of anxiety to raise them in this climate.”

While Philadelphia protesters march and recite the names of Black men and women who have been killed by the police in recent years, many have also used this moment to point to Philadelphia’s own issues with police brutality. According to a 2015 report, police used firearms to shoot Philadelphians six times more often than New York police—despite New York’s larger population. 

Throughout the rallies, officers have also been accused of using excessive force against protesters. Last week, Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr. was charged with aggravated assault after allegedly beating a college student with a baton during an arrest at a Philadelphia demonstration, thus causing a serious head injury .

Protesters like Rosalind Pichardo, who attended a gathering at Philadelphia’s City Hall, have pointed to changes they’d like to see among their own city’s police department as reasons for protesting. “My son has been harassed by police. This isn’t about being anti-police. I’ve walked [to support] men and women who die in the line of duty—so I support them if they’re doing what’s right on the job. This [protest] is about addressing what isn’t right.”

Another Philadelphia protester, Theresa Custalow, was moved as a mother to march after watching the video of Floyd’s death. “Seeing the video and hearing [Floyd] cry for his mama brought me out here,” she said. “I lost my own son to violence.” Her son was not a victim of police brutality, but Custalow said that’s not the point. “The violence—it’s all the same.”

Teresa Custalow
(photo by Lauren Rowello)

Protesters have demanded a variety of responses from the city and police department. Some are specific to policing—such as disbanding private police departments (including transit and university police systems), abolishing the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Advisory Committee, immediately firing officers who use lethal force and referring them to counseling, and defunding the police with reallocation of funds to community programming. 

“There’s a lot of great people who are working in the system, and the challenge isn’t individual officers or prosecutors,” said Stewart, the former cop. “We need the institutions to rethink policy and their approach to serving communities. We need the community to have a voice—a voice that isn’t just raised here but is at the table with leaders. We need seats to advise on policies, procedures, and training.”

On Monday, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus unfurled a Black Lives Matter banner at the dais of the state House to call attention to current proposals to ban chokeholds, improve tracking of officers who have engaged in misconduct, and widen access to police video. House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican, said the lawmakers turned protesters were raising legitimate issues.

Amaya—who asked Keystone to use only her first name to protect her privacy—is a Black woman who lives in South Philadelphia. She explained that she doesn’t believe white people in the city take racial tension seriously. She points to the Mummer’s Parade—an annual Philadelphia tradition in which groups play string music, dance, and perform skits along a designated route to celebrate New Year’s Day—as an example. 

“There’s blackface and skits that make fun of Black people and other marginalized people—and we’re just supposed to laugh about it?” She elaborated: “Any time we ask politely for things to change, it takes months or years and it’s too little too late when it’s finally all said and done.”

Amaya talked about the false sense of security she feels while she’s out in her neighborhood with her white roommates juxtaposed with the isolation and fear she experiences when she’s walking alone. She said she has been stopped by both neighbors and police who accuse her of not belonging in the area. “It’s like I’m only safe if white people are with me, and even then, I’m not sure it’s enough.”

To her point, some Philadelphians have countered the recent gatherings calling for an end to police brutality by walking through the streets armed with bats after curfew. Others carried assault rifles

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Kate, a 26-year-old white woman from Fishtown who also asked to be identified only by her first name, joined the protests for the first time last Wednesday. “Enough is enough,” she said. “I recognized some of those men who were out ‘defending’ their streets and ’supporting’ the police. I’m embarrassed that I’m related to one. I can’t figure out how to talk to him about this, but I will. I have to. That’s part of my responsibility.”

She added: “How could I not join protesters after seeing how the police and white supremacists in our own neighborhoods are responding to their concerns?”

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney finally addressed some of the demands of protesters by taking down the Frank Rizzo statue and removing his mural at the Italian Market, which many noted was a symbol of police brutality and racism in the city. “I’ve done anti-racism actions that I found online, but I feel like change isn’t coming fast enough,” Kate said. “Protests are working. They’ve arrested Chauvin. They finally took down that racist [Rizzo] statue. This is what we have to do to make change. That’s so obvious to me now.”

Derek, a white man from West Philadelphia, volunteered as a medic for the first time on June 1. He carried a backpack with a red, duct-taped cross to show it held medical equipment. “I’ve been to a handful of protests before and this time it seems like a lot of people are getting tear gassed and pepper sprayed,” he said, asking to only be identified by his first name. “This protest is about Black lives and the health of Black people. As a white guy, this isn’t about me—so I just want to try to help out in whatever way I can.”

Another protest participant, Al of Kensington, kneeled from the beginning of a protest in Center City at noon until curfew at 8 p.m. last week.

Al
(photo by Lauren Rowello)

“Chauvin was on Floyd’s neck until his life was taken from his,” said Al, who also expressed concerns about his privacy. “White supremacy and the mistreatment of Black people has been going on since the beginning [of this country]. America’s knee has been on Black people’s necks since the start. When will that end? Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Al especially wanted to highlight the importance of extending our collective concern for Black lives to those who are Black and queer, underlining that Black, transgender women experience even more violence and discrimination. “Black, trans lives matter. Black, trans women deal with the brunt of it. They need to be protected.”

Meanwhile, Stewart, the former police officer and father, explained that he wants to show his son what it can look like when people stand up for the Black community. “My younger son is learning what it means to be Black in this country,” he said. “I think it’s important for him to be here so that he can see people advocating and standing up for our community—and [the chanting we do here] opens up the door to discussions about what the words really mean now.”