In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man from Baltimore who died from wounds sustained while in police custody, a group of roughly 30 protesters took to the streets near Philadelphia City Hall. The rally was organized by the Philly Coalition for Racial Economic And Legal (REAL) Justice. In attendance were self-identified members of the groups Anonymous and Black Lives Matter.
The gathering began around 4 p.m. at 15th and Market streets. Pam Africa, a central member of the MOVE organization whose home and headquarters was bombed by Philadelphia police in 1985, along with Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif, spoke to the crowd about police misconduct and the stop-and-frisk policy. The rhetoric was an uncompromising and expletive-filled denunciation of the current political and economic system. And it did not cool off in conversation.
“They hate us, and we hate them even more,” said Khalif when asked how his group’s relationship with police had evolved since Gray’s death. “We hate what they represent, which is arrogance, violence, and occupation. They do not represent the communities. They do not patrol the communities. They occupy the communities.”
After close to an hour, the protesters entered the street and blocked traffic before heading south on Broad Street. The group was followed by roughly 20 officers on bicycles and a smaller contingent dressed in plain clothes and wearing arm bands that identified them as police.
The most tense exchange of the day took place at 10th and South streets when protesters stood in front of a Whole Foods. Police blocked the entrance while protester Erica Mines spoke out against the store’s use of prison labor in some of its products.
When a second protester took to the megaphone, things got personal. Racial epithets were directed at the plain clothes officer and insinuations were made about personal conduct.
By 6:30 p.m. there was a palpable sense that the points which were going to be made had been made. Valid concerns about police behavior were buried in cringe-worthy verbal attacks while the nearly two-to-one protester-to-officer ratio did little to dispel notions about police tendencies to respond disproportionately. In the year since Freddie Gray’s death, it is hard to see where any progress has been made.