Tensions were flaring between protesters and police on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia when Councilmember Jamie Gauthier entered the scene Sunday evening.
“They were peaceful protesters, but they really wanted to have a conversation,” said Gauthier, who was talking to a group of young people in the middle of the street. “They were interested in talking about their concerns around police violence and police brutality … and they were refusing to leave because they didn’t think that they would be heard after that moment.”
Gauthier pulled out her cell phone and eventually got Mayor Jim Kenney on the speaker. “This is Kenney?” one young man said. “Yo, dawg!” After Kenney promised to meet with the protesters later this week, they started to disperse, at least for a while.
As the city scrambled to respond to the anger and destruction unleashed during the weekend over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, Gauthier and her colleagues on the council were pulled into a series of ad-hoc damage control and stabilization efforts.
On Saturday morning, they had been immersed in negotiating the details of an austerity budget that will slash city services, and trying to counsel business owners eager to reopen after the devastating COVID-19 shutdown. By that evening, they were trying to understand the constantly changing chaos on the streets and find ways to help.
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson said she had been with Gauthier and protesters at 51st and Market on Sunday morning until police tear-gassed the block. A house fire on her block in Wynnefield then drew her home to check on her kids. Monday morning, she was up early, phoning her colleagues and keeping in touch with the city administration.
Later, she joined Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, Gauthier, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilmembers Curtis Jones and Derek Green, and several other elected officials on 52nd Street in visiting the Lowe’s and ShopRite stores at ParkWest Town Center that were badly damaged and looted. People were still looting when the group arrived, she said.
More than 100 volunteers helped clean up the shopping center, Richardson said, and she spent hours talking to residents about the hopelessness over injustice and poverty that led to the weekend’s protests and turmoil.
“We have to have those conversations. I didn’t care how long it took today,” the first-term Councilmember said. “I stayed out and talked to whoever wanted to talk. Some people just need a listening ear. We have to understand that people are frustrated, and we have to do all that we can for them.”
Listening to the news, then hearing from constituents
Councilmember David Oh said he and his staff were busy studying ways to lessen some of the cuts to libraries and cultural programs in Kenney’s proposed budget when the weekend began. He was at home Saturday watching coverage of the peaceful downtown protests and feeling encouraged that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had been charged in the death of George Floyd. Then the news changed.
He started getting calls from nervous constituents who saw images of destruction downtown on television. Oh talked to people afraid of seeing their buildings torched, and messaged with a resident who was standing by his front door carrying an AR-15 rifle to ward off possible home invaders, he said.
Oh said he and his staff received calls from small-business owners part of many different ethnic communities who were desperately worried about their shops and unsure whether it was safe to come into the city to check on them, he said.
“A lot of them are immigrants. They don’t have an insurance plan or a 401(k) or anything. They haven’t been working, and it’s been hard enough,” Oh said. “The last time they were talking to me, they were trying to open their business with social distancing and all that. Now, it has completely changed the conversation. They have lost what they’ve built up, and they were struggling to begin with. A whole bunch of them are not going to recover.”
Getting information out to residents and cleaning up from the weekend’s mayhem have been priorities for elected officials. Councilmember Cindy Bass said she’s been on a series of conference calls with community leaders, business people, and clergy to discuss the police response to the weekend’s violence and how residents can help.
In her district in North Philadelphia, the North 22nd business corridor was hard hit on Sunday night. Looters smashed the windows and looted hair supply, sneaker, cell phone, liquor and grocery stores, she said. On Monday, however, residents were out in force cleaning up the glass shards and scattered detritus, doing what they could to help businesses begin their recovery efforts.
“As much as people are looting, there are people who are cleaning and saying, we’re taking back our corridors. Even folks who might not see eye to eye, definitely see eye to eye on this. Like, we’re not going to have this. We’re not tolerating it,” she said.
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Saturday night, Councilmember Allan Domb walked over to 18th and Chancellor streets, where a fire was beginning to consume a building housing a Doc Martens store. He suggested the firefighters go up into an adjoining parking garage so they could direct water down into the fire, and he guided a group of them to the fourth floor of the structure, he said. He watched as they removed a wire mesh barrier and positioned their hoses.
“While the fire did spread to three buildings, at 11:30 there was concern it was going to spread further east where there’s a big apartment building on the corner,” said Domb, who owns real estate in Center City. “They contained it really well. The firefighters were amazing. This was a tough fire in a narrow area. I give them a lot of credit.”
Domb stayed in the area around Walnut, Sansom and Locust streets between Broad and 18th streets until 2 a.m., popping into damaged stores and shooing away people trying to enter, he said.
“I walked into several stores and told them to put the stuff down and leave. I’d say almost all of them listened to me. I think they didn’t know who I was. They probably thought I was a lunatic,” Domb said. “It was heartbreaking. All of us love the city and have tremendous pride, and you hate to see this happen. Not just in Center City, but in any neighborhood.”
Green said he visited numerous business corridors around the city that were plundered and smashed. In addition to 52nd Street, he visited Girard Avenue, North Broad Street, 22nd and Lehigh, and parts of Germantown on Monday, he said. He was also told of looting on Aramingo Avenue in Kensington, of the Target on City Avenue, and of many Rite Aid, CVS, and Family Dollar stores around the city, he said.
As painful as it was to see the devastation of business corridors that communities in some cases worked hard, over many years, to get up and running, it was heartening to see cleanups like the effort at the 52nd Street shopping center, he said.
“Seeing the number of people who were cleaning, from all backgrounds, ethnicity, religions, perspectives, who had come out with brooms and shovels and gloves, whether they were cleaning up their property or other peoples’ property, cleaning up our city — that was very positive to see that,” Green said.