PHILADELPHIA — Imagine being surrounded 24 hours a day by uber-violent hood rats whom you know will remorselessly kill you, a family member or a loved one for snitching.
Now, imagine that this is only half of the story.
The other side of the coin is that your fear of some police — sworn to protect you from the aforementioned super predators — is wholly legitimate.
For thousands of African Americans in Philadelphia and other large cities, this is a part of life: poor, Black and trapped in unforgiving neighborhoods plagued by drugs, the hyper-violent people who control this illicit business, gangs and the perception that you don’t know which police officers are good or bad.
I thought about this last week when the National Action Network‘s Philadelphia chairwoman, Paula Peebles, implicated an unnamed Philadelphia police officer and his son as players in the city’s illegal gun market.
“There are police officers that are selling guns to young African Americans in the city of Philadelphia,” Peebles said last week. “I know this because NAN is dealing with a matter currently where a young African-American man was sold a gun by a white police officer’s son, with a silencer. And when he was not able to come up with all the money and refused to give him the gun back, he went to his daddy and his daddy has a bounty of police officers looking for this young man to try to retrieve the gun.”
Peebles did not provide any specific details about when or where this occurred or what the bounty might be, opening the door to questions about the veracity of her comments.
That said, I’m not the only one unwilling to summarily dismiss what Peebles said.
“Paula Peebles, over the years, has been a credible source,” City Councilman Curtis Jones told The Philadelphia Tribune. “If what she is alleging is true, it is deeply disturbing and could be deeply damaging to the level of trust between the community and the Philadelphia police force.”
I was at that meeting at Christian Stronghold Baptist Church and heard the stunning allegation. I reached out to Peebles earlier this week for further clarity. She said she remains in contact with the family of the young man, who no longer lives with them.
She says the family is unwilling to come forward because, like so many other Blacks, “they are terrified of the police.”
A police spokesman said he had heard nothing of Peebles’ allegations, but added that the proper course of action was to bring it to the police or the Police Advisory Council, the independent agency that analyzes and reviews police departments policies, practices and procedures.
To that, Peebles says that many African Americans trapped in our worst neighborhoods are so mistrustful of the police that they simply won’t reach out to “anything that has police” in its name.
I’ve heard this from any number of African Americans in the city. And if it’s true — and I am not here to further shush marginalized Black people — then this is the worst type of environment possible, one that punishes you for snitching on hoodlums and places you at odds with the police, those supposed to be the last line of defense.
While it is unfair to paint any group with broad strokes, it was just last year that the Plain View Project revealed that more than 330 Philadelphia police officers had made racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic posts on social media.
And it wasn’t long ago that the ACLU sued the majority white police departments in New York City and Philadelphia, arguing that officers’ use of stop-and-frisk targeted and unjustly punished Black and Brown people.
And then there are the deaths of so many Black and Brown people at the hands of police: Eric Garner, the 43-year-old former horticulturist who was choked to death by white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old recent high school graduate who was shot and killed by white police Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson in 2014; Tamir Rice, the 14-year-old teen who was playing with a toy gun in a park and shot by white Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann in 2014; Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who entered a police vehicle in Baltimore in and left it in a coma in 2015; David A. Jones, the 30-year-old man who was shot and killed by white Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, who stopped Jones after Pownall saw Jones riding a dirt bike in 2017; Botham Jean, the 26-year-old accountant who was inexplicably shot to death in his own apartment by white off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2018; Atatiana Jefferson, the 28-year-old human resources worker who was shot to death while playing video games with her nephew at her house in Forth Worth by white officer Aaron Dean in 2019.
The list goes on and on.
The common thread in these unlikeliest of instances is that they almost uniformly always involve a white cop and a Black victim. Taken in their totality, is it really that difficult to see how cops can come to be perceived as radioactive? Can you truly rule out the possibility of any type of dangerous malfeasance?
Not if you are poor, Black and living under racism’s incessant cudgeling.
John N. Mitchell is a columnist and reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared.