‘The war was at our door’: Saj and Tommy Blackwell on living through West Philly uprisings

Thomas Blackwell alleges he was beaten by police during a Monday protest of the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.

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Tommy and Saj Blackwell at their West Philadelphia home. (Chris Norris/WHYY)

Tommy and Saj Blackwell at their West Philadelphia home. (Chris Norris/WHYY)

In West Philadelphia, there’s a familiar scene playing out.

Helicopters are hovering over rowhouses near the 52nd Street business corridor. The streets are filled with glass and burnt debris, businesses are looted, and police are standing guard while neighbors remain scared and outraged. In late May, the cause of these circumstances was the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police while screaming for his late mother. Today, the catalyst for the uprising was the death of Walter Wallace, Jr., a 27-year-old Black man who was armed with a knife when at least two Philadelphia police officers each shot at him seven times in front of his mother.

Thomas and Saj Blackwell live in the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the fatal shooting and ensuing uprising occurred. I talked to them about what they are seeing and what neighbors are saying. Thomas Blackwell, who alleges he was beaten by police on Monday evening during the chaos, was on crutches during our conversation, with hospital bands still on his wrist.

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Thomas, the grandson of Lucien and Jannie Blackwell, former City Councilmembers representing the area, said he went out Monday to defuse tensions between angry young people and police. Officers, instead, met his efforts with violence, he told me.

“For the first time in my life, I saw police who wanted to fight civilians,” he said, describing it as a “wrestling match” between police and residents.

For Saj, Monday’s protest reminded her of protests after the police killing of George Floyd. “The war was at our door,” she said, recalling the day in May when tear gas canisters originating with the Philadelphia Police Department landed in their family’s backyard.

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