On July 14 2020, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the Abolitionist Law Center, and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) excessive and unwarranted use of militaristic force during a peaceful protest. Residents captured the scene on video.
On May 31, 2020, as protesters gathered in the 52nd and Market Street area of West Philadelphia (the “52nd Street Community”), the PPD arrived en masse in armored vehicles, in response to limited reports of isolated looting. Without provocation, police unleashed a variety of dangerous military-style munitions, including rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, against protesters, residents, and bystanders throughout the neighborhood. This dangerous force was not limited to the stores, or even the street, where the looting had allegedly occurred. Officers in full body armor and tanks went up and down residential streets in the neighborhood, launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets at residents and passersby who were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or walking home from work, causing residents—including elderly residents and children—to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby.
For residents, an otherwise peaceful, residential community had become a war zone as police in military equipment occupied the neighborhood for hours, chasing residents into their homes and indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas at them— all under the guise of responding to incidents of looting. Many residents were seriously injured, requiring medical treatment and in some cases hospitalization. Some residents were forced to evacuate their own homes after tear gas entered through windows or under doorways.
The complaint filed by LDF on July 14 2021 establishes that the use of militarized police violence against the 52nd Street Community violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unwarranted seizures and excessive force and their Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from racially discriminatory treatment by the police. The complaint also alleges that the police used excessive force in retaliation against protestors for exercising their First Amendment Rights to free speech and assembly.
Between May 31-June 1, 2020, During the same weekend that PPD terrorized residents in West Philadelphia, PPD officers declined to use any force in other predominately white neighborhoods where looting occurred. Notably, while the city of Philadelphia apologized for using tear gas on another more racially diverse group of protesters gathered on Interstate 676 on June 1– and subsequently put a moratorium on the use of tear gas– the city hardly acknowledged the militarized police violence against 52nd Street Community Black residents on May 31. This disparate treatment of Philadelphia residents by PPD epitomizes the very racial discrimination that motivated the protests in the first place.
Police violence against Black communities continued to unfold during negotiations with the City of Philadelphia. On October 26, two PPD officers fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man experiencing a mental health crisis, in the same neighborhood as the May 31st protests. Community members who gathered to protest Mr. Wallace’s death were once again met with unwarranted and excessive police violence. In the direct aftermath of these renewed protests, the local U.S. attorney’s office brought criminal charges against our named plaintiff in addition to others who were allegedly involved in vandalizing public property stemming from the May 31st protests.
On May 14, 2021, LDF and counsel from other protest cases sent a joint letter to the City of Philadelphia proposing a model consent decree and a series of requested policy reforms ranging from police use of force to officer discipline for racially biased policing.
The City responded with a letter on June 23 2021. The City’s letter did not answer or even respond to the reasonable reforms proposed by LDF and attorneys in other protest-related cases. The ongoing failure of the City to negotiate in a timely manner was the subject of a status conference on July 20th, 2021 in front of Magistrate Judge Strawbridge. After that hearing, the court developed a timeline for parties to discuss and receive feedback on the outstanding issues outlined in the letter.
Following the hearing, the City explicitly rejected the policy reforms proposed by plaintiffs, arguing that they were either outside the scope of the present litigation, and/or were previously addressed through existing municipal reforms and settlement agreements. In late August, Judge Strawbridge held a pair of ex-parte meeting with both parties to gain a better understanding of the outstanding issues in the cases.
Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), co-counsel Covington &