Protesters marching up Market Street in West Philadelphia. [Courtesy Lexi McMenamin]

Walter Wallace Jr.'s killing in Philadelphia opens up fresh wounds for the city

WEST PHILADELPHIA, Pa.—On Monday, Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black father, in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia. While it is not totally clear what led to the confrontation, Wallace was reportedly holding a knife, while his mother attempted to stand in front of him during the confrontation. Video footage shows police surrounded Wallace and shot him from over 10 feet away, in front of Wallace’s mother and neighbors. Clips of the shooting went viral on social media.

In the hours after the shooting, Wallace’s father, Walter Wallace Sr., revealed that his son suffered from mental health issues. “Why didn’t they use a Taser? His mother was trying to defuse the situation,” he asked, speaking to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The city’s police commissioner said the following day that neither officer was carrying a Taser at the time. “He has mental issues,” Wallace Sr. said. “Why you have to gun him down?”

Shaka Johnson, a lawyer for the Wallace family, told media that the Wallace family had called 911 and specifically requested an ambulance instead of police, citing Walter Wallace Jr.’s history of bipolar disorder. Sources said the police had been called to the scene two times earlier that day. “His wife told [police] that he was manic and bipolar. Officers who are trained properly should notice certain things when they arrive at a scene,” Johnson told reporters. “Especially when his wife tells them, ‘Stand down, officers.’”

Police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp told the press that Wallace “advanced towards the officers,” but did not clarify further why the situation escalated to deadly use of force. During a press conference, Philadelphia police could not confirm how many times Wallace was shot, but the officers discharged at least 14 bullets. The two officers involved were taken off duty pending an internal investigation.

“If you aren't here for abolishing the police, sit your ass at home.”

As has happened so many times this year, protesters have taken to the streets in response. On the first night of protests, demonstrators clashed with police; as of Tuesday afternoon, the police said at least 91 people had been arrested in correlation to the protests, and roughly 30 police officers were injured in the conflict.

On the ground Tuesday night, several hundred protesters met in a West Philadelphia park named for Malcolm X, blocks away from where Wallace was killed. Helicopters circled overhead as protest organizers struggled to be heard over the din. West Philadelphia has long been a target for police violence in the city: In 1985, Philadelphia police bombed Black families in the neighborhood, killing 11 people and destroying 60 rowhomes in what became known as the MOVE bombing. Krystal Strong, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, evoked the memory of the MOVE bombing while speaking to the gathered crowd Tuesday night.

“I met his mother, who we all know watched her child die, collapsed in tears because they killed her baby. And we're watching the way that Walter Wallace Jr. is becoming a symbol, and we are losing sight of the fact that this was a person, not a fucking hashtag,” Strong told the crowd. The pain of a city where people have been protesting in the streets since late May, brought out now again for one of their own, was palpable. “Maybe you didn't take us seriously in June, July, August, September. Here we are in October and another Black man is dead. Take us seriously now. If you aren't here for abolishing the police, sit your ass at home.”

As the night progressed, protesters split off: One group marched through West Philadelphia towards the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, while the other went to the 18th Precinct near the site of the shooting, where protesters were held last night. Outside the precinct, protesters mourned together and held space; one couple even got engaged. Protesters marching in the crowd, unwilling to be identified because of fears of police monitoring social media posts, expressed a personal need to join the crowd and support the movement for Black lives.

One protester shared that he worked for the city of Philadelphia. “I hate to be out here, you know, we don't want to be out here,” he told me. “But in our own city this is going down, and if you’re not loud in your own city, about things happening in our own city, nothing's gonna happen in Philadelphia.” I asked if he was worried about conflict with the police. “No. And I'm ready for it, if they want to escalate. We're protesting peacefully, but if they want to escalate — that seems to be their M.O. — we’re ready for it.”

Protesters gathered at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia. [Courtesy Lexi McMenamin]

Another protester said she worked at a violence prevention organization in the city, and said that many of her clients live in West Philly. I asked if she was surprised by the police violence the night before. “I don’t expect any different, unfortunately,” she said. “Hopefully, we can change that.”

On the other side of the city from West Philadelphia, police reported looting at a Walmart and other stores. West Philadelphia itself also saw looting the first night of the protests. Walter Wallace Sr. went on CNN Wednesday morning to decry the looting, saying, “It’s not going to bring my son back.”

According to CNN, one officer was injured during Tuesday’s protests in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania National Guard was deployed to the city by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Tuesday afternoon, though Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) connected that deployment to the election rather than the protests. Wallace Jr.’s death has quickly been vaulted to national news, with officials including Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner, local city councilperson Jamie Gauthier, and Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris all making statements about the shooting.

Meanwhile, John McNesby, the president of Philadelphia’s police union, claimed the involved officers were “traumatized” from the shooting. And in a statement released just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the White House blamed “riots in Philadelphia” on “the liberal Democrats’ war against the police”; the statement did not name or mention Wallace Jr. Solidarity protests broke out Tuesday night in cities including New York.

Wallace Jr., an aspiring rapper, leaves behind a pregnant wife and nine children, Johnson said Tuesday, adding that Wallace’s wife is scheduled to be induced Wednesday. They had only been married for three weeks. A GoFundMe has been started for the family.

The eldest of Wallace’s sons spoke to the press Tuesday night. “Those white racist cops killed my dad,” the young boy said. “And Black lives still matter.”