By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
— PHILADELPHIA — Protesters in this city have expressed outrage following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. on Oct. 26. Wallace—a 27-year-old Black man—was slaughtered near his West Philadelphia home.
As protests, with some looting, moved into the second day, a 9 p.m. citywide curfew was announced. The governor has sent the National Guard to Philadelphia at the request of city officials, and troops should be arriving on Friday. Meanwhile, the Trump administration said it was prepared to send in armed federal agents if it appeared necessary. Trump, who said a couple of weeks ago that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” now affirms that the city is “wonderful” but needs to be saved. “We’re waiting for the call. “We’ll be ready to go within one hour,” the president declared.
Walter Wallace Jr. was killed as his mother, Cathy Wallace, and neighbors pleaded with the cops not to shoot him. Two officers fired a volley of 14 shots, mowing him down in the street. As Wallace crumpled to the ground, his mother ran to him, screaming and flailing her arms at the cops who had shot her son. An officer drove Wallace to the hospital, where he was pronounce dead a short time later.
A phone video taken by a neighbor of the incident soon appeared on social media. Although a police spokesperson told the press that Wallace had “advanced on the officers” before being killed, that is not readily apparent in the video (he seems to be walking toward their left). And although the cops said Wallace was holding a knife, that fact is also indistinct in the video. But it does show that he was several yards away from the officers who killed him, and did not present an immediate threat to anybody.
Walter Wallace Jr. worked as an Uber delivery man. He aspired to a career as a rap artist, going by the name “Who-he” on YouTube. Wallace “was a family man,” Tasha White, who lives a few doors down, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “He walked with his kids and he walked with his mom. He was a quiet kid.”
Wallace suffered from mental health conditions. He had been in court on several occasions since he was a teenager, and the charges included making threats of violence. Judges had ordered that he receive “medication management.” On the day of the shooting, his brother phoned 911 three times to request that an ambulance—not police officers—come to the house in order to provide assistance to Walter, who was undergoing an apparent mental crisis.
Pam Africa, a founder of the MOVE organization, who lives on the block, told reporters that the police had visited the neighborhood earlier that afternoon in response to the family’s call: “Between 1:30 and 2, I go to my door and I happen to look out, the block is full of cops. And my neighbor is talking to the cops … she spent a long time telling them about her son.”
When the police returned later in the afternoon, they failed to bring with them any people who were skilled in medical care or psychological counseling. Shaka Johnson, a lawyer representing the Wallace family, said that Wallace’s wife, Dominique Wallace, informed the officers that her husband was bipolar. His mother, Cathy Wallace, later told reporters, “They just laughed at us.”
“Officers who are properly trained should notice certain things when they arrive at a scene,” Johnson told reporters. “Especially when the wife tells you, ‘Stand down, officers, he’s manic bipolar.’”
Although they were unprepared or unwilling to deal with the medical emergency, the cops were obviously prepared to use force. Some witnesses state that the cops drew their guns almost immediately after they arrived. The video confirms that for at least half a minute before the shooting, even as Wallace’s mother tried to shield her son, the two cops had their guns drawn and were yelling commands at him. These were maneuvers that stood to escalate the confrontation rather than settle it down.
Pam Africa said that she had left her house for a couple of hours on Oct. 26, and when she returned, her daughter showed her the video of the shooting on Facebook. “I’m looking at my neighbor. And her standing between the police and her son and begging them not to shoot her son,” Africa said. “They should have came back with a social worker. They should have came back with a minister from the police department. They should have came back with somebody who deals with mental issues.”
“The community was saying: ‘This is our neighbor. We know him. Don’t shoot him. Because it was obvious to everybody that they were going to kill that brother.”
Within hours of the killing, hundreds of protesters had taken to the streets, demanding “Justice!” as residents of the area cheered them on. The crowd was clearly angry and exasperated from seeing Black men and women repeatedly slaughtered by the police. Despite all the promises by public officials that something will be done, the killing goes on. So far this year, at least 995 people have been killed by police, according to the Washington Post.
Protests continued the following day. An evening march on Oct. 27 drew from 500 to 1000 protesters, according to a Socialist Resurgence member who participated. The event was called by the Black Philly Radical Collective and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. It began with a rally at Malcolm X Park, where speakers addressed the need to defund and abolish the police, Marchers then made their way to the 18th District police headquarters in West Philadelphia, chanting, “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” “Black lives matter!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Although the march had been peaceful, they were met there by a line of police holding riot shields.
One protester, Andrea Dinger, brought her four children to the front lines of the protest, directly facing the line of cops. She told a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, “My son looks like Walter Wallace, he has mental issues like Walter Wallace, I am scared he will be killed like Walter Wallace.” The Inquirer reports that, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2015, adults with untreated severe mental illness account for about one in every four fatal police shootings. And only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it.
Wallace’s family, still in anguish, spoke to reporters in the street. His father, Walter Wallace Sr., said that when he closes his eyes, he sees his son being “murdered, butchered” in front of him. “It’s in my mind. I can’t even sleep at night.” Three of Wallace Jr.’s young sons (he had eight children, with another on the way) also faced the cameras. The oldest boy, Zamir, said, “He used to always tell me how to be a man. And white racist cops got my own dad. And Black lives still matter.”
The police said that about 170 people were arrested over the course of two days. Video footage shows the cops acting in a particularly brutal manner toward some protesters, at times taunting them with obscenities. In one video, a white officer wrestles a young Black woman to the ground, where he punches her repeatedly. In another video, police swarm around an SUV, smash the windows with their clubs, drag the driver and an adult passenger onto the ground and beat them, and then pull out a small child from the back seat.
In some neighborhoods, looting broke out, and several police cars were set on fire. Shops throughout the city have now boarded up their windows, as they did following the murder of George Floyd. In the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, people with baseball bats stood guard. In the same neighborhood in the early summer, white right-wing vigilantes who were similarly armed attacked Black Lives Matter activists—as cops stood by and even thanked them for their help.
Much of the media commentary on the shooting has stressed the need for police departments to offer crisis intervention and de-escalation training to officers. While such reforms cannot hurt, the effect is bound to be, as the saying goes, like putting lipstick on a pig. The major problem is not that some officers are insufficiently trained in non-violent pacification techniques. In point of fact, police are expected to do the opposite—to be killers, thugs, strikebreakers, and even racists. Violence comes with the blue uniform and badge. That’s why the cops carry guns and nightsticks. And that’s why, when cops kill, wound, or maim someone, they usually suffer little punishment—let alone arrest and imprisonment as criminals.
The fact that drew widespread attention (and outrage) to the killing of Walter Wallace, as with the murder of George Floyd, was that it was carried out in front of many witnesses, videoed, and placed on social media. Otherwise, the circumstances of Wallace’s murder would not have been very unusual for the cops, and would possibly even pass unnoticed in the big-business media.
One study, as reported in “Our Enemies in Blue” by Kristian Williams, showed that from 2003 to 2005 in the U.S., 1095 people were killed by police and other officials in the process of arrest—that is, an average of one person a day. Thus, the killing of Walter Wallace reflects a recurring pattern of brutality and death—with many more Black victims than whites—that is endemic to the system of policing.
The police are the armed repressive body of the capitalist state. The protection of people’s lives is far down on the list of their responsibilities. Their major role is to protect private property and the rule of the capitalist class, and to make sure that the exploitative economic and social system keeps humming along. For that reason, any people who might appear to disrupt the status quo—striking workers, marching protesters, homeless camps, poor and dispossessed people in general—become their targets. In much of the country, police forces originated in the 19th-century patrols that were formed to capture escaped slaves, and quelling the demands of the Black community today continues as one of the functions of the police.
As a repressive institution by its very nature, it is impossible to reform the police into becoming a benign or non-violent body. But we can demand reforms that weaken and disarm the police, in that way making them less virulent. We should support demands to defund, disarm, and ultimately to abolish police forces. We should demand that in medical and domestic crises, as in the case of Walter Wallace, qualified medical, psychological, or social services be dispatched instead of the police.
So far, the names of the officers who killed Walter Wallace have not been released. This is inexcusable. The cops must be identified and the footage from their body cameras must be revealed to the public. It’s hypocritical that thousands of working-class people—especially people of color—rot in prison on trumped-up charges, when trigger-happy cops are usually able to get away scot free.