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In West Philadelphia, some say outsiders are turning protests violent

Jeff Neiburg
Delaware News Journal

PHILADELPHIA – The blocks of row homes that surround Malcolm X Park are dotted with Black Lives Matter signs.

The West Philadelphia park has recently hosted candlelight vigils for Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor, two Black people who drew national attention over the last year for the way they died: at the hands of police officers.

This week, the park was ground zero for protests in the name of another victim of a police shooting, this one from their own neighborhood.

Walter Wallace Jr. was killed Monday by Philadelphia police officers after the 27-year-old Black man walked toward officers with a knife in his hand as his mother watched nearby.

David Parker yells at police in West Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

That night and the night after, protesters used the park as a starting point for demonstrations that started peacefully and later turned violent.

Tuesday night, hundreds of protesters took to the streets after meeting in the park for more than an hour. They marched around the neighborhood, chanting "Black Lives Matter" and denouncing police violence. Some speakers in the park called for abolishing police altogether.

For most of Tuesday night, area residents not involved with the protest showed support, honking their car horns when the group passed. As a group of a few hundred people walked by his home en route to the 18th District police station on Pine Street, one man turned to two others and said, "Man, I'm so proud of these young people."

But a block away and an hour later, another man had a different opinion. He had just watched a large group of mostly young white people chant and throw things at about a dozen police officers, forcing them west on Delancey Street.

"You white people don't even know what you're protesting for," the man said.

Blocks away from where officers and protesters were clashing, Wallace's father had just urged protesters and opportunists around the city to stop the violence and looting that had roiled the city for two nights and forced a National Guard deployment in the city for the second time in five months.

“They’re not helping my family; they’re showing disrespect,” Wallace Sr. told reporters. “Stop this violence and chaos. People have businesses. We all got to eat.”

Wednesday afternoon, hours before the city-mandated 9 p.m. curfew went into effect, Evelyn Jones agreed.

"I believe in demonstrating, but I do not believe in looting and rioting," said Jones, whose home is two blocks from Malcolm X Park. "I'm proud of the ones out here and doing the right thing, demonstrating without problems."

Others, she said, were "hurting" the community.

"And half of them don't even live here," she said.

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Walking on the park's west side Wednesday afternoon were Patty Hurley and Kenneth Sample, neighbors who live south of the park.

They agreed that they didn't think the neighborhood needed the ongoing unrest.

"We're trying to prevent this from happening to anybody," Sample said. "We don't want people getting hurt."

Hurley, 67, said she follows the news on television. She had a catalog at the ready of recent incidents of gun violence to prove it. The city is suffering through its most violent year since 2007. She referenced an early October incident that left a 19-year-old woman dead.

"It pisses me off, everyone running around with the signs," Hurley said of this week's protests. "Where are all the signs for that poor little girl?"

Hurley said she was born and raised in the church. Her brother is a pastor, she said. And white people, Hurley said, have "really helped me and looked out for me in a respectful way."

She was frustrated that all of the violence and unrest happens after a white officer shoots a Black man.

"Your own race is doing that," she said.

"Why are we so divided?" she asked. "I'm not used to this."

Hurley said she welcomed the National Guard's arrival this week to quell the ongoing protests. It worked, she said, when the Guard was called upon during massive protests and violence in the days and weeks following George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.

West Philadelphia saw its share of clashes during Floyd protests in late May and early June. On May 31, officers deployed tear gas in the neighborhood to clear out crowds of looters. 

A demonstrator faces off with police in West Philadelphia, Pa. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

Five months later, the area was buzzing again this week. In areas of West Philadelphia and north of Center City, residents were being urged to stay in their homes as widespread protests turned to violence and looting across the city.

Police made more than 250 arrests between Monday night and Wednesday morning. 

But outside of a small group of people being arrested outside the 18th District for violating curfew, according to the Inquirer, the streets were mostly quiet Wednesday night.

That was probably a welcome development for Anita King and her neighbors, who live on the north side of the park. As one protest got started, she said one of her neighbors mentioned wanting to grab the microphone and tell everyone to go home.

"People like the park because it's peace and quiet," she said. "This area doesn't have a  lot of peace and quiet."

While she supports the protests, King said, they were largely "disconnected from the community." She referenced "white kids that jump in their cars and go home to New Jersey.

"If it was more connected and people have a voice, I think it would help. Generally, I think people would like to see a change."

King, 62, said she spent much of her early life protesting against capitalism.

What happened to Wallace, she said, was more reflective of issues in the community than anything else. 

"People in this area have financial struggles," she said. "That leads to addiction struggles."

It's a snowball effect.

Later, as she was talking, a police helicopter flew overhead. King got sidetracked. 

"That's still a symbol of MOVE for some of us," she said, looking to the sky.

King was referring to the 1985 MOVE bombings just a dozen blocks away from where she was standing Wednesday afternoon. Thirty-five years ago, MOVE, an anarchist group that the city labeled a terrorist organization, famously had their home bombed by police and the subsequent fire destroyed 65 surrounding homes. The house, three blocks from where Wallace was killed Monday, housed 13 people. Eleven of them, including five children, died.

Decades later, police violence in the community persists.

"It doesn't ever end," Sample said. "Everything keeps going on and on and on. It's like an Energizer."

Contact Jeff Neiburg at Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.