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Philadelphia police tear-gas protesters on I-676 on June 1, 2020.

Credit: Chase Sutton

The City of Philadelphia has yet to respond to inquiries by the United Nations — which were based upon testimonies from Penn community members — regarding allegations of excessive use of force by the Philadelphia Police Department during the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

UN Special Procedures mandate holders, who are independent human rights experts, previously sent two letters concerning the protests that occurred during May and June of 2020. The first letter, issued on June 8, 2020, raised concerns about allegations of arbitrary arrests and detention, intimidation and harassment of journalists and protesters, and police violence against Black people. The second letter, issued on Oct. 16, 2020, concerned allegations of excessive use of force by Philadelphia's law enforcement officials against peaceful protesters. 

An official submission to the United Nations was compiled and sent in December 2020 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic, and it included witness reports from Penn Community for Justice members and other residents who were present at the protests, according to PCJ co-founder and Assistant Director of the South Asia Center Amelia Carter.

Following this submission, the United Nations issued their most recent letter of allegation on Jan. 7, and it included 15 questions that the United Nations is still awaiting clarification on in order to continue their ongoing investigation into the alleged abuses of human rights perpetrated by the city's police department, Kline School of Law professor and Stern Community Lawyering Clinic Director Rachel Lopez said.

A spokesperson for the City of Philadelphia did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The UN submission started last summer when Lopez took on an informal role of educating local protesters about their legal rights. As she heard stories about police officers' excessive use of force in Philadelphia and became connected with local activists in the area, Lopez decided to start organizing a formal submission to the United Nations because she believed what was happening in Philadelphia constituted human rights abuses.

“[The UN submission] was a vehicle for us to push and put pressure on the city to really change their priorities and change how they do their work going forward,” Lopez said.

Carter, with whom Lopez connected with online, provided testimony for the UN submission based on her experience at 52nd Street on May 31, when Philadelphia police officers tear-gassed the area. Carter said that it “really felt like a battleground” to see tanks roll down her street and police officers in full riot gear carrying guns full of tear gas canisters or rubber bullets.

Though Carter said she is not solely seeking justice for the harm inflicted upon her, she contributed her experiences and insight to the UN statement because she believes it is a step towards reevaluating the entire policing system in America.

“In the moment, I didn't understand what happened, but I knew that it was wrong and that it was something that I couldn't allow to happen again in my neighborhood,” Carter said. “For me, it was about fighting for myself and for my neighbors to make sure that the police didn't get away with it.”

Similarly, PCJ organizer and 2020 School of Social Policy & Practice graduate Chris Cannito contributed to the submission, stating he was protesting peacefully on Interstate 676 on June 1 when Philadelphia police officers shot rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas and pepper spray on him and others who were walking in solidarity.

“As I got closer, I saw more people, and it was a nightmare situation. People were pushed up against the [highway embankment], there were pops and explosions behind me, there was a lot of vomit and blood, people were screaming, and it was muddy and hot,” Cannito said. “I remember we got hit with another wave of tear gas, and I legitimately was coughing so much that I thought in the next couple moments, I was going to die.”

Talking to people like Cannito, who were at the protests described in the UN submission, inspired local community members to reach out to international experts at the United Nations. 

Katie Princivalle, Brenna Jeffries, and Ryan Nasino, all students at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law, helped work on the official submission to the United Nations in the hopes that it will put more pressure on city officials by including the framework of international human rights and the experiences of local residents.

“We were really invested in speaking with victims," Princivalle said. "There was definitely a need for accountability for what had happened, but there was also a desire to reform and to reimagine how justice and accountability can look like in Philadelphia."

1993 Penn Law graduate and ACLU of Pennsylvania Deputy Legal Director Mary Catherine Roper said that the ACLU chapter had already been talking to witnesses and victims during the protests and agreed to combine their efforts with the Stern Lawyering Clinic to strengthen the UN submission by contextualizing individual events to create a larger narrative.

“The police responded with extraordinary and excessive force to protesters who were — ironically — protesting police brutality and protesting for Black lives,” Roper said. “At the same time, [officers] gave a pass to white vigilante groups that were armed and violent in different parts of the city.”

In addition to the letter asking for more information from the Philadelphia government, the United Nations also released a joint statement from 23 human rights experts on Feb. 26, imploring the United States to address systemic racism and enact reforms to stop police violence.

Both Carter and Cannito said that this joint statement is significant because it represents one of the first times that international human rights experts have echoed the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. Carter said that while seeing this has made her hopeful for the future, she will not get complacent or stop fighting for justice.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Perry World House Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein also said that this joint statement is significant progress towards a more equitable future because, following worldwide solidarity marches with the Black Lives Matter movement after the police killing of George Floyd, it shows that there are international bodies committed to addressing systemic racism across the globe.

“The statement is an affirmation and confirmation that the message that the Black Lives Matter movement has been campaigning to put forward doesn't just resonate within the [United States], but it also has applicability outside the [United States] as well,” Al Hussein said.

Now, both local organizers and the United Nations are waiting to hear from the Philadelphia government to see how it responds to the claims brought up in the original complaint compiled by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Stern Community Lawyering Clinic and the United Nation's subsequent investigation. 

Lopez explained that the future of her team’s work is dependent on how the city responds.

If city officials decide to remain silent, she said, Philadelphia will be marked as unresponsive in the United Nations' annual report — which may be indicative of a larger problem that city officials are not willing to put in the work to address systemic racism within policing.

“If the United Nations is coming in and saying that they think there may be a problem in the city, and you won't even engage with them, to me there's something that demonstrates an absence of accountability and thoughtfulness that is alarming,” Lopez said.

Al Hussein said that while a lack of response from the Philadelphia government is disconcerting, it might represent the time it takes institutions to come up with a response to situations that arise. 

Although Carter said that she is not shocked by the lack of response from Philadelphia officials, she remains “incredibly disappointed in the lack of leadership in the city.” Moving forward, she hopes that students and other concerned community members continue to pressure all local officials to encourage Mayor Jim Kenney to respond and "actually work for the people of Philadelphia."

“Human rights don’t mean anything unless people put meaning behind them and give them gravity. Otherwise, the daily violence that we experience in this country is normalized,” Carter said. “Now, it's about showing your outrage and demanding change until the change is made, because otherwise people will hope that we forget. We are continuing to fight, and we will not stop fighting until we see some actionable change.”

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