After dozens of mostly white men patrolled Fishtown’s streets with makeshift weapons and little police intervention on a Monday evening in early June, community groups and leaders say they want to heal a changing neighborhood historically defined by a culture of exclusivity.
But one month after the Fishtown incident, things were tense as ever at a virtual community meeting Tuesday night.
Neighbors sparred with one another and with the police as time ticked away before any meaningful solutions could be discussed. The meeting reached capacity with 300 participants, and many community members said they were left disappointed as police evaded questions about accountability and derided “both sides” when referencing the evening of June 1.
Captain William Fisher, subject of a petition signed by 36,000 people calling for his resignation, leads the 26th District, which oversees the area.
“There was agitation on both sides from the get go,” Fisher said as he recounted what happened June 1 at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. He added that police chose not to disperse the group because it wouldn’t have been “tactically advantageous.” With vandalism and other disregard for the law happening in other areas around the city that night, Fisher said, the 26th didn’t have enough officers.
The group of armed Fishtowners and other nearby neighbors wandered the streets purporting to protect their community from would-be “looters.” Along the way, members of the group were filmed hurling homophobic and racist slurs, threatening passersby and attacking a cyclist.
None of the men were arrested or cited for violating curfew, as were hundreds of others around the city. One group member was the brother of a 26th District officer.
At the virtual community meeting Tuesday, Capt. Fisher said his men couldn’t arrest members of the vigilante-styled group that night because “carrying a bat is not a crime.”
The assertion sparked a strong rebuke from District Attorney Larry Krasner, who was on the call.
“‘CARRYING A BAT IS NOT A CRIME UNLESS YOU COMMIT A CRIME WITH IT’ is a highly inaccurate statement of the criminal offense of Possession of an Instrument of Crime,” Krasner wrote. Carrying a bat without a lawful purpose and with the intent to threaten, assault, etc. is a crime. Possession of an Instrument of Crime.”
Using the Zoom meeting chat feature, a few defended the police, while comments condemning 26th District poured in throughout the meeting.
Reached ahead of the online gathering, civic leaders and elected officials expressed hopes to establish concrete plans that would move police-community relations forward in Fishtown and other neighborhoods policed by the 26th District.
District Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez, who lives within the jurisdiction in nearby Norris Square, told Billy Penn she had previously proposed moving the physical location of the police district headquarters. She views it as a step toward better integrating members of the force with more of the community they’re intended to protect.
“This [police] district is not centrally located in the district that it represents,” Quiñones Sánchez said in a phone interview.
She mentioned meetings held by the Police District Advisory Council, which in the 26th are all held at district HQ, and noted they have not drawn a very diverse audience. “No one from 4th and Norris is going to go to a meeting at 95 and Girard Avenue,” she said.
‘Underground tension’ rising to the surface
Tension on display at Tuesday night’s meeting was much about class as race.
Fishtown was in the early and mid-20th century a familial, working class, Irish Catholic community with people employed in factory and industrial jobs. By the late 20th century, Black and Hispanic neighbors who lived west of the El knew not to venture to the other side of the tracks.
“I talk to African American people today and they all say the same thing: It was known you never went to Fishtown if you were Black,” said Kensington native and historian Ken Milano in Philly Mag’s oral history of the neighborhood.
Much like Kensington is today, parts of Fishtown in the ’90s and early ’00s were overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic in its earlier iterations. Resilient natives stayed, clambering to restore their neighborhood. New bars and restaurants popped up. SugarHouse, now Rivers Casino, whooshed in with a cash infusion.
Fishtown has experienced various levels of gentrification over the last 15 years. Now, next to decades-old family homes are $800k new builds. The surging construction breeds new anxieties.
“I’ve lived in Northern Liberties for 25 years, almost,” Pa. Rep. Mary Isaacson, whose 175th District encompasses Fishtown, said in an interview. “Before Northern Liberties had its evolution, there was a core group of us. There was a neighborhood there that people didn’t really know and understand about. So I’ve seen it happen.”
Fishtown’s explosive June 1 incident, when at least three people were injured and for which at least one person has been arrested, surfaced what Councilmember Quiñones Sánchez called “underground tension” and launched it sky high.
Civic associations that have successfully brought corridor-changing investment to Fishtown feel more than ever it’s time for neighborhood reconciliation, and are eyeing police disinvolvement as one solution.
The Lutheran Settlement House hosted a training earlier Tuesday focused on alternatives to policing with the Fishtown Neighbors Association, the Fishtown Business Improvement District and other neighborhood associations.
“What we really hoped would happen from the community meeting… is that it’s the start of ongoing community conversation, and really working towards a solution,” said Bea Rider, president of one of those groups, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.
Capt. Fisher promised there would be follow up, and said he hoped to restore trust.
“A band aid’s been ripped off and took a scab with it,” said Isaacson, the state rep, “and a community’s bleeding and they need to heal together.”