US election: ‘The police have to stop being the judge, jury and executioner’
Key election city Philadelphia in national spotlight after rioting follows police killing
The air is heavy in this corner of west Philadelphia.
On this grey weekday morning, neighbours and friends of Walter Wallace jnr, the 27-year-old African-American who was shot dead by police last Monday afternoon after he approached them with a knife, are talking quietly on the pavement.
No one wants to give their name, but they are happy to speak about their deceased neighbour.
“I was born and raised in this community and I never felt that I was in danger in 65 years,” says one man as he quietly drags on a cigarette. “Those police officers came in with guns, he was no harm to anyone. His mother just called to get help. The police have to stop being the judge, jury and executioner in this country.”
Wallace was the latest African-American person to be killed by white police officers, after a summer of violence and protest sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
A video filmed on a neighbour’s smartphone shows in horrifying detail the events that unfolded on this quiet residential street. Wallace, brandishing a knife, is shouting and approaching two police officers who have pointed their firearms at him.
Then several shots are fired and Wallace collapses. His mother, wailing, rushes to his body. He later died in hospital. His family have said that the victim had bipolar disorder and police should have used non-lethal methods to subdue him. Both officers have been temporarily placed off-duty while an investigation takes place.
The incident has renewed focus, not just on how police respond to violent incidents in communities of colour, but also how authorities deal with acute mental illness. In particular, questions have been raised about why the officers did not carry taser guns when they were dispatched to the scene, despite reports that authorities had visited the home before and were familiar with the victim.
The fatal shooting of Wallace also threatens to reignite the question of law and order and policing in America just days before the presidential election. Widespread unrest, protests and looting erupted in Philadelphia this week, prompting the mayor to impose a curfew on Wednesday night.
Businesses in the downtown area of the city were forced to erect plywood boarding as they braced themselves for violence just at a time when city businesses are beginning to get back on their feet after the Covid-19 lockdown.
A few blocks from where Wallace was shot, Oliver is trying to put his business back together. WellAid pharmacy was one of many businesses attacked and looted on Monday night.
“They came back here and cleared out everything – all the drugs, even the computers,” he says from behind the counter, gesturing towards the secure area behind the cash register where the pharmacy’s stock is stored. He says the owners watched the robbery take place on security cameras after the alarm was triggered. “There were about 15-20 people, all looting, grabbing. We called the police and eventually they escorted us back here after it had all finished.”
President Donald Trump is hoping that the experience of small-business owners such as these, and scenes of violence and clashes on the streets of Philadelphia, will help return the theme of law and order to the top of the political agenda, particularly in the suburbs where his support is showing signs of flagging.
Responding to the violence this week, Trump immediately politicised the issue, criticising the city’s Democratic leadership and boasting of his own support among police unions.
“The rioting in Philadelphia ... You can’t let that go on. Again, a Democrat-run state, a Democrat-run city,” he said.
Joe Biden trod a delicate line between sympathising with the family of Wallace and condemning looting and violence, amid criticism from some that he was too slow to denounce destruction in cities such as Milwaukee and Kenosha.
“I think to be able to protest is totally legitimate, is totally reasonable, but the looting ... There is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence,” he said.
Pennsylvania is sometimes put artificially in the midwest category, but it is a bit of a misnomer
Although the unrest has pushed Philadelphia into the national spotlight, the city has always been key to this election. As the largest city in Pennsylvania, what happens in Philly and its suburbs on election night will be watched around the country. Four years ago, the moment when Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania was announced was the point at which Hillary Clinton’s defeat became inevitable.
With just a few days of campaigning remaining, both candidates believe that a path to victory next week runs through Pennsylvania, a huge state with 20 electoral college votes.
Brendan Boyle, who represents Pennsylvania’s second congressional district in Congress, says there is often a misconception about Pennsylvania being a traditional “rust belt” state, often grouped together with Michigan and Wisconsin. But in fact Pennsylvania is much more diverse.
New York city is just over an hour’s train journey away, while Erie County, a western Pennsylvania county that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump, is seven hours by car from Philly.
“Pennsylvania is sometimes put artificially in the midwest category, but it is a bit of a misnomer. The majority of the state’s voters live in the eastern half of the state,” says Boyle, who points out that Philadelphia and the city’s outer suburbs represent about 45 per cent of the state’s population.
In simple terms, Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 because he drove up margins in rural counties in the state, which offset a big Democratic vote around the urban centres of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh further west.
But again, Boyle points out that something of an “urban myth” has emerged about the low Philadelphia turnout for Clinton in 2016. “There is no doubt that Clinton badly underperformed in blue-collar parts of the state, and yes, her margin was a little lower in Philadelphia than it had been for Obama, but not that much lower,” he says.
Polls show Biden ahead in Pennsylvania. He has home-town advantage, having been born in Scranton where he lived until he was 11. Trump likes to tell supporters at rallies in Pennsylvania that Biden abandoned them, but analysts believe that Biden’s natural connection with blue-collar voters in the state puts him in a better position than Clinton.
Already, Pennsylvania has reported high voter turnout. For the first time, the state is allowing “no excuse” absentee balloting. A video went viral last week showing artists entertaining voters standing in line at one of the many early voting locations across the city. More than two million Pennsylvanians have already returned mail-in ballots, the vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Sharif Street, said this week, including thousands of registered Democrats in Philadelphia who didn’t vote in 2016.
Pennsylvania was at the centre of the “blue wave” that swept the country in the 2018 midterm elections
In a further win for Democrats, the supreme court upheld a state ruling that election officials can accept mail-in ballots up to three days after election day, if they have been posted by November 3rd.
But Trump has sought to stoke doubt about the legitimacy of Pennsylvania’s, and particularly Philadelphia’s, voting system, amid expectations that a final vote will not be known for some time.
“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he intoned during the first presidential debate last month, encouraging people to monitor election activity in the area.
Members of the Trump campaign team videoed voters dropping ballots in special election drop boxes around the city, prompting the state attorney general to warn that the practice could amount to voter intimidation.
The campaign is also in a legal battle with the city about allowing poll-watchers to enter satellite election offices.
While the Real Clear Politics average of polls has Biden ahead by an average of 3.5 percentage points in Pennsylvania, the real challenge for Democrats will be to ensure Democratic turnout in the greater Philadelphia area is sufficient to counter a strong turnout for Trump in rural areas of the state (though Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in a Trump-friendly district in the west of the state in 2018 has boosted hopes that Democrats can also perform well in increasingly Republican-leaning areas.)
Democrats are also hoping to make changes at a congressional and state level. Pennsylvania was at the centre of the “blue wave” that swept the country in the 2018 midterm elections. Four female Democratic candidates won seats in Congress, though that was in part a result of a redrawing of election districts after the Republican-controlled state legislature was found to have illegally gerrymandered districts after they won control in 2010. Similarly, Democrats see an opportunity to gain control of the state house and senate.
In west Philadelphia, near the street where Wallace lost his life, the material deprivation is evident across the neighbourhood. An inner suburb near the downtown area, it has struggled under the phenomenon of “white flight”, which saw well-off white families flee to the outer suburbs in the 20th century and a dwindling tax base that led to underfunding of facilities and housing.
But while many of the people in this low-income, overwhelmingly African-American community are battling poverty, the distinctive blue and white Biden-Harris election signs are everywhere. It suggests an encouraging level of political engagement on the Democratic side.
Ensuring that these voters exercise their right to vote could help determine the outcome in a state that will be closely watched in the coming days.