The police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia on Monday has been met with widespread grief and protests among the Penn and larger Philadelphia community.
"I would speak first personally, as a Black man who is grieving and weeping with the family of Walter Wallace, and sisters and brothers all around the country who are tired," Vice President for Social Equity and Community and University Chaplain Charles Howard said. "It is painful. It is exhausting. It is heartbreaking. It is terrifying to see people who look like you killed by police officers."
On Monday afternoon, two Philadelphia police officers shot and killed 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man in West Philadelphia, leading to protests and standoffs near Penn's campus later that evening and throughout the following day.
Police say Wallace Jr. was armed with a knife, and he has a history of mental health problems such as bipolar disorder. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Wallace's family had called 911 for an ambulance to help manage Wallace's unstable mental condition.
The Philadelphia Party for Socialism and Liberation hosted a peaceful march on Tuesday evening from Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia through Penn's campus to Clark Park. Protesters demanded justice for Wallace Jr., calling to defund the Philadelphia Police Department and arrest and charge the officers who killed Wallace Jr. The march, attended by over 200 people including Howard, was endorsed by six justice organizations including Penn Community for Justice and the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter.
Although Tuesday's march was peaceful, Monday night's demonstration became violent later in the evening, with people looting stores in the area. Police and protesters clashed as well.
College sophomore Pierre Li Peters said that the protests on Monday night started out very peaceful, with neighbors in the community joining the protesters from their porches.
"I was mostly just in front of the police precinct at 55th [and] Pine [streets]. But I left about 20 minutes before the police got aggressive on protesters." Peters said, adding that he left at around 10:30 p.m. "I know a couple friends of mine got bruises and I think one of their friends had to go to the hospital for random stampeding or just being pushed."
The Penn Community for Justice condemned Monday night's police violence and stressed their dismay with continued police brutality in the community.
"Last night, 52nd St. was a battleground. We've been peaceful for months and police are still murdering our neighbors. The only time we are heard is when things get ugly. People are tired of waiting for change. The images from last night are what tired looks like," the group wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Penn Community for Justice called on Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to take community concerns seriously, for City Council to make the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission elected by Philadelphians instead of politicians, and to make the commission "have the ability to fire officers with records of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and other hateful ideologies." The group also demanded Penn to pay PILOTs and defund the Penn Police.
"We hope that the mistakes of 52nd St. will not be repeated, and that Penn Police will allow peaceful protest to proceed unhindered within their patrol area. The time for conversations about racial justice is long past; it’s time for Penn to do its part to stand up for its Black neighbors," Penn Community for Justice's email continued.
At the request of city officials, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s office confirmed on Tuesday evening that the Pennsylvania National Guard would mobilize to head to the city to protect local property and supplement the Philadelphia Police.
Police Free Penn, an assembly of Penn community members created in June seeking to abolish policing and transform community safety at the University, matched donations on Tuesday to the Philadelphia Bail Fund for protesters. Authorities detained 10 people overnight on Monday near 55th and Pine Street, and police told The Philadelphia Inquirer that about 20 people were arrested in relation to looting at various stores in West Philadelphia, University City, and other nearby neighborhoods.
“The fatal violence of policing is sustained. It’s not an exception. It’s the rule. It's a moral evil that requires our divestment. We stand with all those who fight for abolition, including most urgently in Philadelphia the visionary demands and organizing led by the Black Philly Radical Collective,” Police Free Penn wrote in a statement to the DP, adding that they support the protests happening in West Philadelphia.
"We invite Penn students no matter where they are now to contribute to the family fund for Walter Wallace Jr., local bail funds, and other mutual aid projects that support on the ground protests," the group continued.
In about 20 hours, a GoFundMe for Wallace Jr.’s family received more than $119,000 in donations.
Police Free Penn also condemned Penn Police, saying they saw officers go "beyond their jurisdiction" during Monday night's protests.
But Vice President of Public Safety Maureen Rush refuted this idea in an interview with the DP. She said while Penn Police's patrol zone, which extends from 30th Street to 43rd Street east to west and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue north to south, is their usual area of influence, Penn police still has the same authorities and police powers as the Philadelphia police across the city.
"Let's just make it clear, there's no magic line at 43rd Street. We can control, we can respond, we can back up other police departments outside of 43rd Street. Does that happen every minute every day? Absolutely not." Rush said.
She explained that DPS does not have an offender processing unit, which is why when an arrest is made, Penn Police are required to transport any offender they arrest to the station at 55th Street and Pine, where offender processing occurs, to go into the court system.
Rush said that Penn Police did make arrests last night, giving one example of an arrest in which two offenders broke into the Rite Aid at 41st Street and Market Street.
Rush said she and DPS officers were fortunate Tuesday night, where about 300 people marched down 40th Street and through Penn's campus, because the protests were peaceful.
"Our officers, in Philadelphia Police assistance, ensured that everyone had their right to the First Amendment. And that's our goal. It's always our goal to assist protesters in doing what they need to do, but also making sure that the Penn community is safe, which why both nights you did get a UPennAlert," Rush said.
College first year Megha Neelapu, who saw the protests through social media platforms, said she thinks the Philadelphia protests are part of a larger story that more and more people across the nation — and even in the world, referencing the EndSARS movement in Nigeria — want the police out of their communities. She added that she supports the demands from Police Free Penn that call to divest from the Philadelphia Police Foundation and Philadelphia Police Department and reinvest in local communities.
"It's easy to imagine a world [where] Walter Wallace Jr. had simply received help from a mental health professional and was in bed safe and alive that night. Penn must do its part to make that world a reality," Neelapu said.
Howard said that it is dangerous to directly connect the University with the killing of Wallace. But he emphasized that the University has a broader role in making progress in Philadelphia.
"Penn has a role in helping to wrestle with the painful intersections at the heart of this tragedy, including racism, mental health, and contemporary policing in our city," Howard said. "And I don't think that's a new thing, I think we have parts of the University that are working hard on each of those issues and should be."
College junior and founding member of Penn Justice Democrats Amira Chowdhury said that the group mourns in solidarity with the West Philadelphia community and student organizations such as Penn Community for Justice and Police Free Penn.
"But we are also raging with them, raging at Penn and the role Penn plays in perpetuating and maintaining this system of violence towards Black Americans and Black communities in West Philly," Chowdhury said. "Penn continues to have one of the largest university police departments in the country, when we live in an economically diverse community and when those resources could be invested more into social resources to protect these community members and support them and not meet them with violence."
She said that while Penn Justice Democrats is not planning any official protests of their own, many members are joining those that are being organized by other groups.
Chowdhury said that she was very affected by Wallace's death, but can't find the "emotional capacity to participate" in the protests that are taking place now, after participating in protests over the summer and getting teargassed. She said that despite this, she is encouraging and supporting her friends who do so, and is sharing resources and informing people.
"Penn’s a big place, but I know that the whole Penn community is grieving too. It’s heartbreaking to hear about story from across the country, but it’s doubly painful when the story is down the street," Howard said.