A large mural meant to signify unity and anti-racism is now dividing some residents in Philadelphia's Fishtown section, who feel it instead serves as a way to gloss over recent negative policing in the neighborhood.
Hundreds of people, including Philadelphia police officers, gathered Tuesday night to paint “End Racism Now” in big, bold, yellow letters near the intersection of Girard and Montgomery avenues. Critics, though, say the act, and the officers’ involvement, detracts from actions of 26th District police, who have been criticized as slow to react to a group of men armed with baseball bats intimidating protesters last week.
“There was no sense that this was about accountability. It seemed like an event that was just meant for PR,” said Conrad Benner, a longtime Fishtown resident who recently moved to South Philadelphia after being priced out of the gentrifying neighborhood.
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Benner, who runs the popular street art blog Streets Dept., is one of a number of people calling for the ouster of 26th District Capt. William Fisher, who leads the district, after police were slow to respond when a group of white men with bats defied a citywide curfew and intimidated anti-racism and anti-police violence protesters, in one case assaulting a WHYY reporter. An online petition to remove Fisher had garnered more than 33,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney himself was critical of that day’s events, calling the men “vigilantes” and saying they both high-fived and took pictures with police.
The mayor’s office would not comment further when reached by email Wednesday, saying only that the incident is currently being investigated by the police department’s Internal Affairs division and that “it would be inappropriate to comment on personnel questions related to the incident.”
The Philadelphia Police Department did not return a request for comment about whether it would remove Fisher, nor did it respond to the petitioners’ accusations that leadership in the 26th District "encouraged, enabled, and protected” the armed men.
Meanwhile, the mural remains emblazoned on the street.
Pastor John T. Brice, of the St. James United Methodist Church, led and organized the mural’s painting. He did not return multiple requests for comment from NBC10, but told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he believes working with police is a more effective tool for healing than ostracizing them.
However, pastor Dan Roth, of the Summerfield-Siloam United Methodist Church, who also helped organize the painting of the mural, said he wishes he knew about Brice’s plan to involve police beforehand and understands why some construed it as “performative” and “PR-related."
“I didn’t understand it as an event that would involve police,” Roth said, adding that while he was in charge of organizing logistics, Brice took the lead in putting together the event program. “I thought John was gonna talk and then we were going to paint,” Roth said.
Even during the event, Roth said he had reservations about Brice’s conciliatory attitude toward the police, but he did not feel it was his place to “‘correct’ (Brice’s) voice, especially in a public forum.”
In Roth’s view, Brice acted as he did because he believes in “individual transformation.” Roth, though, has a somewhat different perspective.
“While I’m a believer in individual transformation, I really believe you have to work on systems and also individual accountability,” he said, adding that he thinks there are inherent problems with racism in police departments, including Philadelphia’s, and that “the system needs to be radically reformed, and if not, removed and replaced.”
Benner also thinks Brice should have been more forthcoming about the police’s involvement in the mural, and said the actions of officers during the incident with the armed men should continue to be scrutinized.
“I believe in the power of public art, but if this was about healing, then the first step of healing is about accountability,” Benner said.
Deana Gamble, the communications director for the mayor’s office, said the city told organizers “it was fine for the installation to stay until it faded naturally,” but that the organizers “fully intended to have the display removed overnight” to ensure the safety of drivers.
At organizers’ request, the Philadelphia Fire Department tried to wash away the paint, a task which proved unsuccessful. With no further plans from the city to remove the mural, it will likely remain in its place for the foreseeable future.