(Philadelphia Tribune photo)
By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — The year 2020 was unlike any other.
African-Americans were at the center of issues that dominated local and national headlines during the past 12 months. Here is a look at the top local stories of the year.
The first case of novel coronavirus in Philadelphia was confirmed on March 10. Since then, the virus has sickened and killed thousands and the economic fallout has disrupted nearly every part of daily life.
The Kenney administration put in place a full lockdown and closed all non-essential businesses in March temporarily in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
Face masks and hand sanitizer became essential items. Restrictions on businesses and social gatherings remained throughout the year.
The city’s economy went into a free fall. The service industry, including restaurants and retail, was hit the hardest, which includes jobs disproportionately held by African-Americans and other people of color. The city’s unemployment rate shot up to a high of 18.2% in June. Food insecurity has soared and food banks are stressed.
The Kenney administration made cuts to the fiscal year 2021 budget to plug a $750 million shortfall. The pandemic shuttered schools as instruction went virtual.
African-American Philadelphians, similar to Blacks across the U.S., were disproportionately affected by the virus. In the city, Blacks contracted and died from the virus at the highest rates among all racial groups.
The first COVID-19 vaccine doses arrived in Philadelphia on Dec.14. The first doses were administered on Dec. 16.
The George Floyd protests
Protests over police brutality swept through the city starting on May 30 over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations lasted through late June in Philadelphia. Weeks of daily peaceful protests and civil unrest, including looting, brought the city to a standstill. The Kenney administration imposed curfews and called in National Guard troops.
The protests highlighted the discrepancies in policing throughout the city. While police allowed white vigilantes to prowl the Fishtown neighborhood with baseball bats and weapons, peaceful protesters in the Black neighborhoods of West Philadelphia around 52nd and Market streets were bombarded with tear gas. Peaceful protesters who marched onto I-676 also were met with force by police, including tear gas and rubber bullets.
City officials launched investigations into the city’s overall response and individual officers. City Managing Director Brian Abernathy resigned over his handling of the protests.
The Kenney administration and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw also put in place some police reforms as a result of the heavy-handed tactics used by law enforcement during the protests.
Fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.
Police fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man wielding a knife, on Oct. 26 during a dispute in West Philadelphia that sparked protests and investigations.
Thomas Munz, 26, and Sean Matarazzo, 25, shot and killed Wallace. The officers were not equipped with non-lethal weapons, like Tasers. The Wallace family maintained Wallace had a bipolar disorder and was suffering from a mental health crisis that day.
The Wallace family, Black clergy members, elected officials and protesters condemned the fatal police shooting, called for police reform and the firing of the officers involved. The Kenney administration put forward a funding proposal to fast-track the purchase of Tasers for all officers.
Homicide rate rises
The city’s homicide rate cracked the 400 mark. According to Philadelphia Police Department crime data, 2020 has been the city’s deadliest year since 2007.
New police oversight commission
In November, Philadelphia voters passed a ballot question to create a citizen police oversight commission.
The new commission will be the Police Advisory Commission, which was formed in 1993. The Floyd protests pushed Mayor Jim Kenney and legislators to back a new commission.
But much remains unknown about the proposed commission, including its budget, structure, and authority. City legislators are expected to hash out those details during the upcoming budget negotiations in the spring.
Philadelphia helped decide the 2020 presidential election.
High voter turnout in Philadelphia — 66 percent — coupled with processing delays of hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots left election officials tallying votes for days.
The city was the driving force behind Democrat Joe Biden winning Pennsylvania in the presidential race, defeating incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. Pennsylvania was among the most hotly contested swing states in the U.S. presidential election.
New taxes on property developments
Philadelphia legislators cut the 10-year property tax abatement for new commercial and industrial construction by 10% this year and put in place a 1 percent construction tax on residential projects.
Legislators also delayed the reduction of the 10-year tax abatement for new residential construction developments for 12 months to January 2022, when the two other bills take effect.
The revenue raised from the legislation will back the issuance of a $400 million bond to fund an initiative supporting affordable housing and small businesses.
Head of Philadelphia NAACP posts anti-Semitic meme
NAACP Philadelphia chapter President Rodney Muhammad posted an anti-Semitic meme on Facebook in July, triggering weeks of outrage from elected officials and local groups.
The Philadelphia NAACP executive committee voted in August to hand over control of the local office to the NAACP national office in response to the controversy around Muhammad.
Muhammad, who has been president since 2014, apologized for the post.
Affordable housing protest encampments
Demonstrators set up two encampments to protest the city’s lack of affordable housing options. Between June and October, protest encampments were set up on city-owned land at 22nd Street at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and on a vacant lot at North 21st Street and Ridge Avenue. The lot is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).
Protesters had multiple standoffs with police and Kenney had threatened to forcefully disband the camps.
The Kenney administration and PHA eventually brokered a deal with organizers to disband the camps in exchange for transferring dozens of city-owned properties to a land trust established by the encampment residents, among other commitments from the city.
Supervised injection site
Philadelphia was on track to open the first supervised injection site in February, where people in addiction can use drugs under medical supervision and access treatment services, inside the Constitution Health Plaza in South Philadelphia.
But protests from residents in the neighborhood and state and local officials derailed the plan from Safehouse, the nonprofit seeking to establish the supervised injection site. City Council was aiming to grab control of the regulatory process around opening a supervised injection site before the coronavirus pandemic arrived to shelve the legislation.
Safehouse remains in a drawn-out court battle with U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain over whether it can open a site in the city.
Black doctors group gets city contract for pandemic response
The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium was awarded a $1.3 million city contract in June to provide novel coronavirus testing in African-American communities.
The all-volunteer consortium, led by Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon, is made up of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professions. The consortium has conducted thousands of free COVID-19 tests at several locations for months leading up to the contract being awarded.
The Kenney administration came under fire from members of City Council and members of the Black community for moving too slow to support access to testing services in communities of color.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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