Did Last Summer's BLM Protests Change Anything?Roundup
tags: African American history, urban history, Black lives matter, Protest, policing
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
On June 1st last year, a week after George Floyd was murdered, more than three hundred fires blazed across Philadelphia, according to police. In the previous days, there had been reports of two hundred commercial burglaries—otherwise known as looting—and more than a hundred and fifty acts of vandalism. Four hundred people had been arrested, and the National Guard was on the way. By that Saturday, June 6th, tens of thousands of people clogged the streets of downtown, demanding justice, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. For eight consecutive nights, the city was choked with tear gas, ruled by curfews. It wasn’t yet summer, but Philadelphia was on fire.
The intensity and the duration of the protests indicated that the problems went much deeper than the lynching of a Black man in Minneapolis. Beyond the issue of racist police violence, Philadelphia has the largest portion of its population living in poverty of any major city in the United States. Not coincidentally, it also has one of the largest Black populations of major American cities. Bitterness rising out of neglect and indifference to poverty, drug addiction, and housing insecurity in poor and working-class Black neighborhoods came back to haunt the political and economic élite.
Mayor Jim Kenney, an unremarkable career politician, was forced to make unprecedented pledges to address the issues of racism, police brutality, and inequality in the “city of brotherly love.” By June 4th, Kenney had established a new commission, called Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation, to “advance public safety and racial equity,” representing “a formal commitment to enact a long-lasting reform agenda.” In its mission statement, the commission declared that “racism in America and Philadelphia is both systemic and institutionalized, with far-reaching effects on political engagement, economic opportunities, health outcomes, and overall life chances for Black and Brown communities. These communities have experienced racial inequalities over generations, which have contributed to structural violence and pervasive poverty in the city.”
A year later, the Kenney administration released a report assessing Pathways’ impact on the city. Kenney said, “We believe we are well on our way to learning from our past, taking accountability for our mistakes and driving change that will make our government and our city stronger for all Philadelphians.” But the “change” was so paltry that it was an affront to the traumas that it claimed to address. A police-reform subcommittee was led by the city’s police commissioner, the aptly named Danielle Outlaw, who spent months barely hanging on to her job after it was revealed that she had championed the use of tear gas against nonviolent protesters who were trapped on a highway cutting through downtown Philadelphia. The reform package included a ban on the use of tear gas at demonstrations and a prohibition against “kneeling on a person’s neck, face, or head.” It sidestepped the key demands of the B.L.M. protests—namely, the redistribution of resources away from police and toward other public agencies that are better equipped to change patterns of violence and crime.
As a tool to undo systemic racism, economic reform, too, was a dead end. The smallest of the subcommittees, called Inclusive Economy, was filled with a hodgepodge of local officials, a developer, and Black businessmen. Beneath soaring rhetoric about “inspiring collaborative efforts,” Philadelphia distributed a measly thirteen million dollars in grants and loans to two thousand business owners. Only sixty-six per cent went to minority business owners—a category that included anyone who is not a white man. It’s not clear how much of that funding went to Black business owners, and it’s also not clear how financing Black business owners relates to ending poverty and discrimination against Black poor and working-class people. Not all Black people have the same interests, even if they have the same skin color.
Philadelphia is not very different from the rest of the United States—caught between a recognition that racism is rooted in unfair and unequal conditions, created within public and private sectors, and reproduced over time and place, and a reluctance to take drastic action to cure it. Democrats on the federal and local levels have mastered the language of racial contrition, lamenting the conditions that nourish inequality, while doing the bare minimum to change them.
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