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10-27-20-walter-wallace-day-2-west-philadelphia-protest-sukhmani-kaur-001

A protester raises a sign in demand for justice for Walter Wallace Jr. in Malcolm X Park on the second day of protests in West Philadelphia. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn students on Wednesday evening sharply criticized the University's official statement on the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr., lambasting the email for failing to mention police violence and accusing it of ignoring Penn's relationship with West Philadelphia.

Amid a tumultuous time for members of the Penn community following the Wallace Jr. shooting on Monday, the statement from Penn escalated student outrage.

In an email signed by Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, the Penn officials referred to Wallace Jr. as a neighbor of the Penn community.

Penn students said they found the rhetoric severely at odds with Penn's role in gentrifying West Philadelphia and displacing thousands of residents. 

The email also referred to his killing as a "death" with no mention of the word "police." 

College senior Landry Krebs, who along with several peers took to Twitter to condemn the email, labeled it "a passive way of talking about state-sanctioned terrorism."

"They're just feigning support for their students without addressing the actual problem and how not only complicit they are in it but how directly they support it," she said. "I don't even know what word to use to fully capture how terrible it is for them to even pretend to care, one, about their students, but two, about the whole of Philadelphia, or any Black individual in the United States, when their own police department is directly engaging in the violence at hand."

For West Philadelphia residents and the Penn community, the location of Wallace Jr.'s killing and subsequent protests reflect the city's deep-rooted history of militarized police presence that the University email disregarded completely.

Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, was killed by two police officers Monday afternoon on the 6100 block of Locust Street — less than half a mile away from the MOVE compound, which police bombed in 1985, killing 11 Black residents. 

Protests throughout West Philadelphia and alongside Penn's campus ensued, where demonstrators were met with violence and arrests by police near 52nd Street — the same residential neighborhood where the Philadelphia Police Department teargassed protesters and innocent bystanders on May 31.  

Krebs said the email raises the question of who Penn police truly exists to serve.

"It is clear that they're really not enforcing any kind of safety, except trying to defend those who are committing these crimes and white supremacy as a whole," she said.

College junior Taya Lowery-Williams said she noticed that it took two days for the University to send the email, but just seconds to send UPennAlerts warning against "civil unrest."

"I thought it was interesting that Penn seemed to be more concerned with protecting Penn property," Lowery-Williams said. "The framing of looting made it seem like they were more concerned about [the looting] than the reason why people were protesting, and the reason there was civil unrest."

In the email, Gutmann reminded the Penn community of the importance of being mindful of "the needs of our West Philadelphia neighbors," touting Penn Medicine's commitment to helping transform Mercy Catholic Medical Center into an initiative that will "provide important behavioral health services for the neighborhood." 

Lowery-Williams commended the University initiative, but said more needs to be done.

"It's great having a hospital that specializes in behavioral health in the neighborhood, but Penn police is still contributing to the problem that people are protesting about," she said. "Penn as a system has been contributing to this problem for decades and we've been telling them what we want them to do to fix it. But again, Penn decides what it wants to listen to and what it doesn't want to listen to." 

College senior Danny Holdsman denounced the University for claiming to support the West Philadelphia community while refusing to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes to the Philadelphia public school system, calling the statement "offensive" to the West Philadelphia community. 

"Instead of statements, I would prefer to see Penn invest its resources in structural changes," he said. "Join the PILOTs program, research ways to best reform policing in Philadelphia and nationwide, offer more classes on relevant issues related to racism in America, and actually work to better the West Philadelphia community."

Krebs voiced a similar sentiment, calling on Penn students to acknowledge their own privilege as Penn students and understand Penn's role in gentrifying West Philadelphia.

"It's essential that we listen to the people that are actually from this community and, especially as Penn students, acknowledge how our presence as an institution directly contributes to these issues that are being protested," she said. "It is necessary for me to acknowledge that by even attending this institution, I'm in a way supporting it and validating it, which just goes to show again how important it is that we call it out."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Penn Police Department arrested offenders who attended protests beyond the DPS normal patrol zone. In fact, DPS did not make arrests of protesters on Monday evening. DPS did process arrests on Monday overnight into Tuesday, DPS Executive Director of Operations Kathleen Shields Anderson said. The arrests were for burglary and an arrest of an individual with an open warrant for arrest, she said, adding that all instances were arrests were inside Penn Police's jurisdiction and bordered the Penn Patrol Zone. The DP regrets this error.

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