Fighting Police Oppression In West Philly
On November 11th, 2012, in the late hours of a Sunday night, Philadelphia Police from the 19th District shot to death 35-year-old bicyclist Derrick “Browny” Flynn.
This was at 61st and Market Street, on the corner of a black working-class neighborhood in West Philly. In a newspaper account the next day police claimed that “the suspect” (his name was not given) had brandished a gun after they stopped him for questioning, resulting in a “violent struggle” and 3 shots from the police that ended Flynn’s life. If Flynn hypothetically did have a gun, why would the police engage him in a “violent struggle,” especially since that is against procedure? Why was Flynn stopped in the first place?
Another nameless black man shot dead by the PPD.
Another all too vague narrative to justify it.
As usual, the victim of police violence is painted as the epitome of criminality. Of course he had a long rap sheet, with convictions for “drug possession, robbery, assault, theft.” Of course he was a “violent drug dealer.” In the eyes of ruling class society, Derrick Flynn was of the criminal class, that class condemned on sight.
Two weeks later, during a protest at the 19th District police station, when the District’s commanding officer, Capt. Joseph Bologna, was asked by Flynn’s sister, Tasha, why her brother was killed, Bologna responded with, “things happen.”
It is not enough for the police to take Flynn’s life by force; they also have the power to devalue it. Revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon argued that the modern world is a world cut into two categories of people: those who are considered to be of human value and those who are pushed outside its realm. The police help establish the dividing line between these two worlds through their direct and frequent use of violence. This happens in the context of the most mundane of everyday activities—while walking down the street, while shopping at the store, while driving, while listening to loud music, etc. For Derrick Flynn, it was while riding a bike.
Justice for Browny!
After reading about the police shooting a few days after it happened, I traveled with other members of the Philadelphia-based radical organization Free the Streets (FTS) to the location to see if something more could be learned. We found a small memorial at the site where the still nameless “suspect” was said to have died, and quickly ran into his relatives and friends there, listening to a very different story from the one spread by the police. We learned that “Browny” was widely respected in his community at the time, and that a lot of people were angry at the police for killing him. Over the course of a week of flyering and postering in the neighborhood, we met several witnesses who described the shooting to us not as a “violent struggle,” but as an execution: with a black cop ordering a white cop to shoot Flynn as he lay wounded and handcuffed on the ground.
In this climate of heightened frustration with the police, FTS along with friends and family of Derrick Flynn organized a community rally on Friday, November 23rd, at the site of his death. The rally was very rowdy and energetic, starting off with 25 people and quickly growing to about 60 as protesters decided to take the streets (without a permit), chanting “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police” and “Unite the Blocks, No More Cops.”
We marched in the direction of two patrol cars that were parked at the intersection of 60th and Market. Catching the police off-guard, the large crowd of protesters was quickly able to block off the busy intersection. At this point several community residents from the protest went up to the parked patrol cars and began yelling and taunting the nervous-looking police inside them. This momentary rupture of power relations of about 20 minutes was soon dispersed when around 6 other patrol cars swarmed the intersection, pulled out their extendable steel batons, and very aggressively tried to shove us onto the sidewalk. A substantial number of protesters tried to hold down the intersection, some even threw our flyers at the police. After we were expelled from the intersection, but still on the street, we marched around the block with the police following. We came back to 61st and Market and concluded the night with some fiery speeches and more defiant verbal exchanges with police and now Civil Affairs. Tensions were very high. If the police had tried to brutalize or arrest even one person that night, the protest could have very easily exploded into a riot.
This street protest was not a standard leftist/activist protest. It was for the most part composed of different layers of the working-class neighborhood it took place in. Derrick Flynn’s sisters and cousins in particular led the march and were the most radical and outspoken. There were also young nieces and nephews who got on the bullhorn and let the police know exactly how they felt about their uncle being murdered. Then there was the lumpen-proletariats, mostly men in their late teens and mid to late twenties, who attentively followed the protesters from the sidewalks and kept a stern eye on the police. The handful of white folks and Latinos there came with the FTS crew. If, as we stated earlier, the modern world is characterized by a superstructural division that is imposed and maintained by the police over society as a whole, then the emergence of a revolutionary challenge to the common police enemy unifies the disparate layers of the working-class.
Another rally and march was organized on Sunday Nov. 25th, drawing only about 15 protesters, again overwhelmingly community residents and relatives of Browny. This time the police anticipated us. Civil Affairs officers showed up right away, counseling family members about how to file a police complaint, assuring them that an Internal Affairs investigation is underway. Unconvinced by the prospects of waiting for a legal outcome, Flynn’s relatives questioned why they had not yet been contacted by internal affairs investigators. As our small formation took the streets and marched 6 blocks to the 19th District police station, it became clear that the police had shifted their strategy from two night before. There was not one squad car in sight. Rather than reacting belligerently to a small group, it is much more effective for the police to use Civil Affairs to try to contain the struggle within a legal and bureaucratic framework.
Our Strategy Is in the Streets
After protesters verbally confronted several officers that were waiting for them in front of the police station, FTS presented a list of demands, including a demand to release the forensic and autopsy reports and another to identity all officers involved in the shooting. We don’t expect the police to meet these simple demands. At a mass meeting FTS held after the march, which civil affairs followed us to, some older activists dismissed the protests as little more than hysterical mobs and argued that we should instead wage a struggle in the courts. But Browny’s relatives and FTS contended that our strategy is in the streets, and that the investigation and legal process is the job of the lawyer that Tasha Flynn hired. Frustrated with this rejection of reformism, these older activists left the meeting, giving us the chance to have a much more productive discussion.
The struggle against the police will not go away. Police violence will only intensify as the economy spirals downward. In Philadelphia it will also intensify as the government disintegrates its public school system and increasingly cuts other public resources. Schools, community centers, libraries, swimming pools, and after-school programs here are being replaced with repressive policies like stop-and-frisk, the youth curfew, a new youth “study” (detention) center and more prisons. The city government is already planning on spending 200 million to construct a new police headquarters at 46th and Market, in the middle of a black working-class neighborhood. As the people of Philadelphia find themselves with less employment, less community institutions, less public services, and more prisons and police, they will only become more rebellious.
— by ARTURO
Photos courtesy of FREE THE STREETS