💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Finding the good in a movement against racist policing and violence almost feels impossible.
So much has transpired since the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd painted a triptych of brutality so disturbing that people in all 50 states and cities across the globe came out to demand change, despite a raging pandemic.
Philly garnered international attention after police used tear gas on protesters and residents. Parts of the city burned for days. Businesses big and small felt the fury of a citizenry that felt long abandoned by its government, as marches splintered into robbery and vandalism.
But the bad and the ugly were joined by the good. Neighbors came together to clean up and rebuild. Couples got engaged. People played basketball, and created new art.
Here are 10 of the best moments of the 2020 social justice protests in Philadelphia.
Rebuilding after destruction
The June protests quickly descended into chaos as demonstrations splintered and small groups around the city broke into stores and buildings. Some called it looting, some rioting. Some saw it as a righteous form of protest, others billed it a distraction.
Whatever you call it, it left a lot of broken glass, burnt ashes and heaps of debris to clean up. Philadelphians across the city were up for the challenge.
Neighbors joined one another in neighborhoods across Center City, West Philadelphia, Germantown, Kensington and others to quickly jumpstart the cleaning and rebuilding process. “Really this is bringing our community together,” said one Germantown volunteer. “What I saw today was every race out there just helping.”
Hooping out the hate
A group of demonstrators spearheaded by local basketball player Stephania Ergemlidze lugged around a pretty basketball hoop during one June protest in Center City to “break the tension,” they told WHYY reporter Nina Feldman.
“I’ve always used basketball to try to bring people together,” read the group’s sign. “Today I feel is a day we need that most!” Ergemlidze and crew even brought hand sanitizer to keep ballers safe.
Their quest for camaraderie seems to have worked, as the group convinced a police officer to join them in a quick game. Apparently, ball is life.
Snacks for the resistance
Many volunteers helped however they could, with many bringing water and snacks to hand out to protesters marching in the late-spring heat.
The healing power of art
Artist Samuel Rodriguez knew he had to do something after police violence, protests and subsequent property damage sent plywood flying up on business facades. The teaching artist tapped friends and attracted more than one hundred volunteers to decorate the off-putting plywood with messages of peace.
He created Walls For Justice and helped uplift communities around Philadelphia by painting murals featuring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and quotes from civil rights-era icons.
Fishtown’s counter protests
On June 1, a group of mostly white self-proclaimed Fishtowners purportedly protecting their neighborhood ultimately condemned Black Lives Matter, and berated and assaulted passersby with little police intervention.
The next day, residents citywide descended on the neighborhood in a peaceful show of force that said, ‘We’re not having that.’
The protesters countering the racist and homophobic ethos from the night before came with messages of inclusivity and unity, and far outnumbered the original bat-wielding mob.
The remarkable turnout
As many as 80k demonstrators showed up in June to Philadelphia’s largest protest against police violence. The impressive rally made its way down Ben Franklin Parkway to City Hall, North up Broad Street and back up the Parkway before ending at the Art Museum steps.
Black Love Matters
Something magical happened in the midst of that massive march the second week of June.
Newlyweds Kerry Anne and Michael Gordon had just been married at the Logan Hotel, just off the Ben Franklin Parkway. Taking a step outside in their gown and tux, the couple walked right into the middle of tens of thousands of protesters, who cheered and parted for the pair. How many other people can claim a historic civil rights moment as the backdrop to their wedding photos?
Record-breaking response for bail funds
The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which collects donations to help release people being held in jail on cash bail, had spent just over $3 million to free 476 people since its founding in May 2017. Nearly $2.2 million of that was used to free 237 people between March and July of this year.
“72% of our work over the last 3 years,” the bail fund wrote on Instagram, “has been done in the last 4 months!!”
The local bail fund popularity was part of a national trend driven by a push to free BLM protesters and criminal justice reform. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, for example, received $20 million in donations over five days and literally had to ask people to stop sending them money.
The Black biz boost
Local bail funds aren’t the only entities that saw a spike in support following the American Spring. Some Black businesses in the area also reported a boost in business spurred by calls to help fight racial inequity by shopping Black.
Of course, Black business owners suffered the most from economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and were helped least by the federal Paycheck Protection Program relief.
Still, one local restaurant owner told Billy Penn, “Once the protests started, I feel like there was a surge.”
Love wins again
Following a full summer of action and demonstration, Philadelphians took to the streets again in the fall after PPD officers shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a Black father suffering a mental health crisis and engaged in a domestic dispute, on Oct. 26.
Protests materialized in West Philadelphia that night and turned into a sometimes violent standoff between demonstrators and police.
But again, in the midst of chaos, love prevailed. On night two of the protests, Maurice Small proposed to his girlfriend of eight years, Tanesha Pennington in front of riot police.