Two weeks ago, Philadelphia agreed to pay $9.25 million in a settlement to hundreds of protesters claiming to be victims of police brutality during the 2020 George Floyd protests. In a class-action lawsuit consolidating four federal cases, the plaintiffs allege that police “[chased] residents into their homes and indiscriminately fire[d] canisters of tear gas at them,” causing them to sustain immense “physical and emotional injuries.”
As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, specific events during the protests were central to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, such as when police surrounded protesters on the Vine Street Expressway and “shot rubber bullets and launched tear gas into the fleeing crowd.” The event generated national attention, and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw later apologized for the officers’ approach.
During the incident, former Philadelphia SWAT officer Richard Nicoletti (later fired and charged with assault) allegedly pepper-sprayed three of the plaintiffs in the face at close range. Other alleged incidents of police abuse in the four federal suits include a family whose home was tear-gassed, making it difficult for the children to breathe, and a protester so tightly zip-tied that he needed three surgeries to heal the damage done to his wrists. The city has also earmarked $500,000 for free mental-health services for traumatized victims of police violence in West Philadelphia, a predominantly black neighborhood.
Though paying more than $9 million to the protesters seems excessive, it does appear that police poorly managed the several chaotic incidents described in the case, and that some officers’ use of force was indeed disproportionate.
We shouldn’t lose sight, though, of the broader context. In June 2020, Philadelphia police were dealing with unprecedented levels of arson, looting, and mass demonstrations, costing the city $21 million in damages. Buildings were vandalized and burned to the ground. The city instituted a curfew after 13 officers were injured and several police cars were burned. Philadelphia ran an article entitled “Black-Owned Businesses That Were Damaged and Looted—and How You Can Support Them,” which named several black-run restaurants, tailor shops, and clothing stores that Black Lives Matters rioters didn’t spare. Democratic mayor Jim Kenney, meantime, exploited the lawsuits to gain support from his progressive voting base. He has asserted that black residents endured “immeasurable” amounts of “pain and trauma,” and that the massive settlement is “just one step in the direction toward reconciliation.”
The drama of the lawsuits and vivid memories of summer 2020 can obscure a disparity in compensation and treatment between culturally sanctified Black Lives Matter protesters and politically inconvenient black victims of homicidal violence.
As I wrote in the year following the BLM-fueled de-policing trend, Philadelphia homicides (535) surpassed the previous record (500), set in 1990 during the height of the crack epidemic. The city saw more victims of homicide in 2021 than in 2014 (248) and 2015 (280) combined, the vast majority of them black (about 85 percent).
Last year finished with a modest decline in violence, though levels remain far higher than before 2020, when officers pulled back from proactive policing and left the force in droves (more than 300 officers have departed). As of March 29, current homicide levels are more than 40 percent higher across the city compared with the five-year average before the mass Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Mayor Kenney’s sympathies with Black Lives Matter protesters are clear, but what does he have to say about the trauma endured by high school students with “multiple friends shot,” or local documentary filmmakers, who, covering the surge in violence, were killed themselves?
We needn’t speculate. While BLM protesters have won their payout for alleged police mistreatment, Mayor Kenney admits that he has never met with families of homicide victims in the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, something his predecessors took the trouble to do.
For Democratic politicians like Kenney, some traumas are more politically exploitable than others—even when they pale in comparison with the ones ignored.
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