On October 7, Philadelphia City Council held a virtual hearing regarding police brutality in the city and the violent repression of protests over the summer sparked by the murder of George Floyd. In response to public outrage over the Philadelphia Police Department’s abhorrent treatment of protestors and residents during the summer’s uprisings, councilmember Helen Gym, with co-sponsorship from all members of the Philadelphia Public Safety Committee, has proposed a bill to ban the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray as crowd control measures.
If passed, this bill would constitute a major concession from city authorities, made possible by pressure from the uprisings over the summer that totally transformed Philadelphia’s political environment and forced racial justice to the forefront of the city’s agenda. The voices heard at the October 7 hearing substantiated the necessity of this bill and showed that Philadelphians are desperate for an alternative to the city’s current policing practices.
The hearing lasted approximately three full hours. The majority of the time was spent hearing from attendees speaking about their personal experiences with unjustified use of police force. Prominent topics included the entrapment and tear-gassing of protestors on I-676, the gassing of majority-Black residential areas around 52nd street in West Philadelphia, and the viral video of an armed police officer lifting a kneeling protestor’s mask to pepper spray their face that made national news.
Many noted that the brutality extended even to those who were not protesting during the peak of the uprisings. People in wheelchairs in Center City and elderly Black residents and children sitting outside their homes were all tear-gassed indiscriminately. This chain of abuses, especially poignant during a global respiratory pandemic, resulted in class action lawsuits against the Philadelphia Police Department with approximately 150 litigants calling for justice.
The city currently has in place a temporary ban on chemical weapons and rubber bullets. But many Philadelphians do not believe that this temporary ban goes far enough — they are instead calling to codify it with permanent legislation. In addition, public outcry in support of defunding the police has pushed several city councilmembers — including Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier — to call for a substantial reduction in the Philadelphia Police Department budget next year. Instead those funds would be allocated towards public safety and community-based violence intervention programs. A follow-up hearing on these issues is scheduled for October 20.
Any legal changes that help rein in the abuses of the Philadelphia Police Department should be counted as victories for the movement, especially considering the city’s notorious history of violence against Black and Brown residents who make up the majority of the city population. However, more must be done to address the routine terror inflicted by the police on oppressed communities every day. Protesters in recent months have been demanding not only a prohibition on the use of tear gas and other “crowd control” weapons, but that the regular firearms that police carry on patrol be taken away as well. While the concessions up for consideration in City Council are a step in the right direction towards protecting Philadelphia’s residents from police violence, the struggle must continue.