A Fishtown resident chats with a police officer during the 'End Racism Now' gathering on June 9, 2020

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When a group of longtime Fishtowners decided to mobilize on the third day of Black Lives Matter protests in Philly because they heard “looters” were coming, there was reason to trust the source. It was officers from the 26th Police District who alerted them, multiple people told Billy Penn.

Neighborhood native Mark was one of the men who came out that evening, he said, agreeing to speak on record only if his last name was withheld.

“They said it, yeah,” Mark confirmed, when asked if the potential looting warning came directly from the police. “But they weren’t saying, ‘Protect us.’ They were just saying, ‘They’re coming. There’s gonna be looting.’”

A group of armed Fishtown men took the advisory as a call to action. That Monday night, they took up bats and other makeshift weapons and formed a roving crowd. Members of the group allegedly assaulted at least three people, and were photographed assaulting a bicyclist.

Brent, another longtime resident who didn’t want to give his last name, agreed with his neighbor. “We were told they’re coming here, so we showed that we’re not gonna have that here,” he said in an interview. “We protect our property and our family and our friends.”

Police have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the Fishtown standoff on June 1, though two police reports have been filed, PPD spokesperson Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew said.

While no looting was reported in the neighborhood, the actions of the vigilante-style throng did spur additional Black Lives Matter protests there. It also brought an invasive police presence, sometimes involving helicopters and SWAT, for several days follwing.

Some Fishtown residents went out that first night to counter the group with bats. Kendall LeParo was among them.

“I’ve never seen anything that looked so much like a lynch mob in my life,” LeParo said. “It was a lot of intoxicated men, berating passersby, holding bats, holding hatchets. So we were out here kinda counter-protesting the counter protesters for a while.”

Kinebrew said the PPD doesn’t know whether information spread by officers was the catalyst, but that investigations into the incident are ongoing. Police were photographed smiling and chatting with the “protect our neighborhood” cabal that night. They did not try to disperse the group of armed men, who were instead allowed to roam the streets hours after the citywide curfew in effect.

It was the first apparent instance of police siding with white Philadelphians aggrieved by the city’s recent uprising over systemic racism, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Police try to keep the calm near the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza on June 16, 2020 Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Neighborhood ‘protection’ as self-fulfilling prophecy

Police in early June were photographed taking pics with armed, mostly white men at a shopping center in Port Richmond, mistakenly identified as Fishtown on social media. After seeing the images, Mayor Jim Kenney condemned those officers’ actions.

This week in South Philly, a group of largely white residents were met with police handshakes as they congregated in front of a Christopher Columbus statue they said they’d heard was being targeted for removal. Weapons from bats to guns were again visible among the group at Marconi Plaza, per photos posted to social media, and officers on site later allowed some members to assault counter-protesters, according to an Inquirer report.

The city maintains there were originally no plans to replace the Columbus statue, or even recent calls to have it removed. But after multiple days of confrontations in the plaza, where the monument is now enclosed in a protective box, Mayor Kenney announced he was starting the official process to reconsider its continued existence there.

“I urge all South Philadelphians attempting to protect the statue to stand down and have your voices heard through the public process,” Kenney said in his announcement.

Like the Fishtown incident, which garnered national attention, the Marconi Plaza uproar became a self-fulfilling prophecy, drawing conflict and attention to an otherwise quiet part of town.

In many of Philadelphia’s historically white enclaves, including Irish-Catholic Fishtown and Italian-American South Philly, local police and the communities they serve seem to maintain a friendly, symbiotic relationship that’s in stark contrast with the way PPD has treated many of the city’s communities of color.

Police in Fishtown’s 26th District, for example, stop Black drivers at almost four times the rate of white drivers and frisk Black drivers more than twice as often. This is despite the fact that police find illegal contraband on white drivers nearly twice as frequently, according to PPD stop and frisk data analyzed by the Defenders Association of Philadelphia.

Overall, Philly cops arrest Black people for loitering and curfew violations four times as often as white people, according to an analysis by 6ABC.

After images of the Fishtown vigilantes went viral, the neighborhood was flooded with several days of Black Lives Matter protests. The following Tuesday, a group of neighbors painted “End Racism Now,” and the names of police violence victims, on the street across from the 26th District headquarters.

That paint was supposed to be removed, but city firefighters couldn’t powerwash the words away. They’ll be there until they fade naturally.

Fishtown resident Mark grimaced when asked about the “End Racism Now” paint job, which he described as being located near his home.

“Listen,” he said, “there ain’t no racism.”

A protester raises a fist outside PPD headquarters on June 7, 2020 Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Dozens upon dozens of misconduct complaints

District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has fielded an influx of police misconduct complaints since May 30, and even created a new Twitter account to handle the volume, according to spokesperson Jane Roh.

“The [Special Investigations Unit] received dozens of communications from members of the public on the Fishtown vigilante incidents alone, and is reviewing dozens of photos and video clips shared from this and other incidents involving police, vigilantes, and anti-racism protesters,” Roh said.

Kara Khan and Matthew Williams said they were attacked by the Fishtown “protection” crowd on June 1, after they mistook the group for a Black Lives Matter protest and raised a fist in solidarity, the couple told WHYY.

The handling of the Fishtown incidents sparked an online petition calling on 26th District Captain William Fisher to resign. It has garnered more than 35k signatures.

Romel Clark and a few friends showed up to Fishtown the next day, angry. They said they’d seen videos of men with bats using racial slurs, and were ready to fight back — but didn’t.

“At first my initial reason for going down there was to start something bad, but I ended up making it peaceful and joining the protest,” Clark told Billy Penn. However, he was incensed by the reaction of the police that second night.

“They were defending the racist residents of Fishtown [with] their backs to them and their face to us,” he said of officers on the scene. “We were like, ‘Do ya’ll see what’s going on? We’re the victims here.’”

People came from as far away as Pittsburgh that Tuesday to not only protest police violence, but as a show of force against the bat-wielding Fishtown men.

Clifford, another Fishtown native who refused to use a last name, said he was one of the people carrying bats next to Mark and Brent on the evening of June 1. “Why are we picking on the cops in Philadelphia,” Clifford said in an interview. “Did these cops do anything to anybody out here? No, they didn’t.”

Brent agreed. “They’ve always been nothing but aces to us,” he said of police. “They got a bad rap. They’re really good people.”

As did Mark. “The 26th [District], they’re the best, as every police officer is that I know,” Mark said. “You go to the 26th right now, you go in that back room,” he said referencing the station layout. “There’s food, people dropping coffee off, everything.”

They and others in the “protection” crew have been out watching subsequent protests in the neighborhood, Clifford noted, just without carrying bats. They too noticed the increased police presence on the streets.

“Now the cops are out here to protect us from these guys,” Clifford said about Black Lives Matter activists. “Or is it vice versa? Are [police] out here to protect them from us?”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...