On 12th day of police protests in Philly region, suburbs take center stage

Hundreds arrive at Pennsauken Community Rec Center for a march and vigil to remember George Floyd and others who died at the hands of police on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hundreds arrive at Pennsauken Community Rec Center for a march and vigil to remember George Floyd and others who died at the hands of police on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 8:56 p.m.

On the 12th day of police protests in the Philadelphia region, few demonstrations crowded the streets of Center City, as gatherings in the suburbs stepped into the spotlight.

In Upper Darby, more than 50 people gathered outside the local YMCA, encouraging drivers to honk their horns.

Upper Darby residents gathered at the intersection of Garrett Road and Lansdowne Avenue to protest for justice for George Floyd and an end to police brutality. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

One of the protestors, Jada Ward, 18, graduated from Upper Darby High School the day before. She wants the momentum in the streets to continue.

“People stopped protesting. They started forgetting about it,” she said. “It’s a trend for a little while, then everybody stops.”

This was the first police protest Ward has been able to participate in since they erupted in the area on May 31 following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man and father of two, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

It was not the first protest in Upper Darby, but organizer BJ Bryant, 21, said this was the largest.

BJ Bryant helped organize a roadside protest in Upper Darby because they wanted to show love for Black transgender people. Bryant also is organizing a march in Upper Darby on Saturday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s a small community and it’s hard to get people to come out,” said Bryant. “The African- American community in Upper Darby is often criminalized by the police. We experience a lot that a lot of people don’t know about.”

Organizers urged protestors to keep the demonstration peaceful, to not block traffic and respect social distancing.

Upper Darby residents knelt in protest of police brutality and racial injustice at the intersection of Garrett Road and Lansdowne Avenue as passing vehicles honked in support. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Vigil in Pennsauken

In Pennsauken, a group of high school students planned an evening vigil Wednesday in honor of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many other Black Americans who have died because of police violence.

Aigner Settles, 16, helped raise awareness of the event on social media with the support of township officials.

“As Black women in this area, we need to do something for this community,” Settles said.

Four Pennsauken High School students (from left) Aigner Settles, Keturah Jones, Ciara Carver and Angela Nguyen, took the lead in organizing a Black Lives Matter march and vigil to remember George Floyd and others killed by police. (Emma Lee/WHYY )

Settles said she hasn’t had too many experiences of racism in Pennsauken, describing it as a “very diverse community.” However, she has heard plenty of offensive uses of the N-word in addition to instances where people were not culturally sensitive.

“Racism is still very much alive and rampant in America, especially right now,” Settles said. “So we need to keep pushing forward, keep being activists, to dismantle this racist system in this country, so we can all have equality and unity.”

While she’s unsure if the beginning of her senior year will start virtually or in-person, Settles is already thinking about the changes related to racial justice she’d like to see within the school building.

Best friends Kyla Thomas and Kyla Butler hold electric candles as they kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds at a vigil in Pennsauken, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She wants to see a social activism club started — and for more topical conversations to occur between teachers and students.

“We want to change our newspaper so we have more current events and we want to inform these incoming students about what is going on,” Settles said. “Because we cannot be uneducated right now and we cannot be silent.”

Longtime Pennsauken resident Correne Thomas heard about the march when the township sent an alert to her cell phone.

She felt motivated to attend based in part on her personal experience with police harassment.

“I’ve experienced it. My children have experienced it and my other family members have experienced it,” she said.

She’s been encouraged to see diversity among the protestors.

“People of all walks of life are just getting tired of watching the injustices that go on continuously,” she said.

Hundreds take a knee for 8 minutes 46 seconds during a vigil at Pennsauken Community Rec Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsauken Police Chief John Nettleton attended the event and knelt with protesters in a show of solidarity. He said the force understands the community is hurt and he praised the organizers for being civic minded and peaceful.

He reflected on the pain he felt when he first saw the video of George Floyd being killed under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“It absolutely hurt my heart,” he said. “I had to explain to my children that that doesn’t represent all of us. It’s not in my heart. It’s not in the officers’ I work with hearts. It was very disturbing to us. We denounce it. And it sets back community relations years.”

Compared to big city police forces, Nettleton said Pennsauken has the advantage of recruiting only from within the boundaries of the township and hiring officers who grew up there and attended local schools.

Of calls by some activists to “defund the police,” Nettleton pushed back.

“We help a lot of good people everyday, and I don’t think the residents of this town would accept that,” he said.

Teachers demand asbestos removal from Philly schools

At about the same time the demonstration in Upper Darby unfolded, a few dozen teachers rallied outside the School District of Philadelphia headquarters in Center City in the sweltering heat, demanding more action to eliminate asbestos in school buildings.

Most of the teachers were from Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where workers hired by the district began removing toxic asbestos insulation around beams in the ceiling during the COVID-19 shutdown. But after the first phase of work was completed, strikingly high elevations of airborne asbestos were detected, even outside the protected work areas.

Bethune is being used as a site for families to pick up food during the pandemic. The asbestos has forced the food distribution to move outside.

Several schools were closed this academic year due to high levels of asbestos.

Teachers and students rallied outside of the School District of Philadelphia Headquarters calling to eliminate asbestos in school buildings. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The teachers came out to protest because they say the district is mishandling the asbestos cleanup. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is suing the district, alleging officials have mishandled asbestos, lead and mold remediation efforts.

Herman Douglas, a seventh grade English teacher, said when the district asked teachers to come into Bethune to prepare laptops to distribute to children for remote learning, it did not tell the teachers that asbestos remediation was occurring the same day.

“We answered the call. We went out to set up Chromebooks to be distributed,” said Herman. “During that time, we saw individuals in our building with hazmat suits on.”

Teachers and students rallied outside of the School District of Philadelphia Headquarters calling to eliminate asbestos in school buildings. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Some teachers pointed out that African American and Latinx students largely attend schools in Pennsylvania that receive fewer resources and, in some cases, have toxic environments.

Although the teacher’s protest was not directly related to uprisings related to police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, sixth grade math teacher Joseph Bryant sees a link.

“Unfortunately, Black and brown students suffer the brunt of many societal issues: schools, health care, and a racist system overall,” he said.

Teachers and students rallied outside of the School District of Philadelphia Headquarters calling to eliminate asbestos in school buildings. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

National Guard pulling up stakes

Early Wednesday, the National Guard said it had begun to pull out of active status in Philadelphia.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, Deanna Gamble, said the armed soldiers have begun to demobilize from the city.

“They will, however, remain in the area for the next few days in the event their support is needed again,” she added.

The guard has been in Philadelphia for ten days at the city’s request to help other law enforcement in neighborhoods where looting took place, and to post around certain commercial corridors and government buildings, including the Philadelphia Police Department headquarters, during the prolonged period of protests.

They were also on hand when the Frank Rizzo statue was removed early in the morning last week.

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