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The Case for Abolition After Philadelphia Police Kill Walter Wallace Jr.

Protests in Philadelphia marked a second night of calling for abolition after police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr.

Protesters in Philadelphia mark a second night of calling for the abolition of police after two Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, while he was having a mental health crisis. The shooting reflects decades of defunding of social services, including for mental health, while police departments have continued to grow, says author and activist Marc Lamont Hill, who argues, “If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” Lamont Hill is professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University and author of We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest, and Possibility.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This story today — a warning to our audience — it contains descriptions of police violence and disturbing images.

Protesters took to the streets of Philadelphia for a second night on Tuesday to condemn the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. The National Guard has been deployed to Philadelphia as outrage grows after two Philadelphia police officers shot and killed the 27-year-old Black father on Monday while he was having a mental health crisis.

Both police officers were reportedly wearing body cameras when they shot Wallace. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Tuesday she does not know if she will release bodycam footage of the killing.

Wallace’s lawyer said Tuesday his family has called for an — was calling for an ambulance to help him with a mental health crisis, but police arrived on the scene instead. Cellphone video of the fatal shooting shows Walter Wallace Jr.’s mother trying to restrain him before he pushes her away and walks toward the officers, who then shot Wallace at least 10 times. Police allege Wallace refused to drop a knife he was holding. Wallace was at least 10 feet away from the police officers when they shot him. At least one witness told The Philadelphia Inquirer the officers were, quote, “too far from him,” and said bystanders were trying to deescalate the situation. On Tuesday, Walter Wallace Jr.’s mother Cathy Wallace told reporters the officers knew her son was in a mental health crisis, because they had been to the family’s house three times on Monday.

REPORTER 1: Did you tell the police about his condition when you called 911?

CATHY WALLACE: Yeah. They already knew about that. They already knew [inaudible]. They already know.

REPORTER 2: They were there earlier in the day, right?


REPORTER 2: Were they there earlier that day?

CATHY WALLACE: Yeah, they was there early that day, and they were standing out there laughing at us. They weren’t trying to help us. They didn’t give a damn about us. And my son said, “Look at them. They’re standing there laughing at us.”

REPORTER 2: What do you want the —

CATHY WALLACE: So I took my son, and I walked, and I left them standing out there. That’s what me and my son — we walked down the street and left the cops standing out there. That’s it. I’m done.

AMY GOODMAN: During Tuesday night’s emotional news conference, the Wallace family’s attorney, Shaka Johnson, said Wallace’s wife Dominique, who witnessed his killing, is pregnant and scheduled to have labor induced today. Johnson said Wallace had nine children. Several of his young sons introduced themselves.


REPORTER: What’s your name?

ZAKA WALLACE: Zaka [phon.] Wallace.

REPORTER: What’s your name, bud?

ZENA WALLACE: Zena [phon.].

REPORTER: Can you tell us about your dad?

ZAMIR JOHNSON: OK. So, we used to always hang out, and we used to always go places, and we used to always play around.

SUPPORTER: That’s all right, son. Keep it going. Keep going. Be strong.

ZAMIR JOHNSON: And we used to — and he looked to always teach me how to be a man.

SUPPORTER: Praise God! Praise God! That’s right. That’s right.

ZAMIR JOHNSON: And these white racist cops got my own dad, because — and Black lives still matter.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the sons of Walter Wallace Jr. He was killed Monday by Philadelphia police.

For more, we go to Philadelphia, where we’re joined by Marc Lamont Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, his forthcoming book, We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest, and Possibility. He was at Monday night’s protest.

Marc, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about everything you understand at this point that has unfolded, beginning with Monday, when the mom said that the police knew full well her son was in a mental health crisis because they had been to the house three times that day? And they said that night they were calling for an ambulance for him.

MARC LAMONT HILL: Right. Well, that’s exactly the point. When the police began to release their statements and tell their version of events, they left out that they had been to the house three times earlier that day. They said, “Oh, we had no way of knowing that he had a mental health episode.” One, it was clear from the previous phone calls, but it was also clear from what his mother told them on the scene, not to mention anyone chasing police around a car with a knife — or, walking — he wasn’t actually chasing the police — walking around with a knife, is clearly having an episode. And so, from all those elements, it was clear that the police did not respond as if someone were having a mental health episode. Instead, they decided to shoot him, instead of exercising deescalation, any kind of negotiation.

And again, the parents weren’t calling the police. They were calling for an ambulance. They were calling for mental health support. And this is part of the fundamental problem of society right now, is that the police become the response to all of our social crises and contradictions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marc, specifically, I wanted to ask you about that. There’s so many incidents we’ve seen, not only over the last year or two, but over decades, of police responding to what are essentially mental health issues, and very few cities have the structure by which there can be mental health professionals responding. It’s always the police, and it always becomes a situation where violence is, unfortunately, used.

MARC LAMONT HILL: That’s exactly right. If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail, right? If the only solution we have is policing, then we’re going to have a militarized and a policing type of — and criminalized response to the problem. For decades what we’ve seen is a sort of raid of the social resources. We no longer have access to mental health, schooling, housing, education. All these things are taken out of the public good and replaced by more militarization, replaced by more policing. And so the police become the response to all of our social problems and crises.

The police aren’t equipped to do this. The police aren’t equipped to handle a situation for mental health. And we’ve seen this since the 1970s, beginning with Reagan and into President Carter’s — I’m sorry, beginning with President Carter’s administration and entering Reagan’s administration. We’ve seen the stripping of mental health resources. And so we see the criminalization of mental health, as mentally ill people end up on the street and then get locked up for loitering. We see the killing of people with mental illness when they have confrontations with police. And in many ways, Juan and Amy, this is more emblematic of the crisis of policing than even when unarmed people die, because for every George Floyd that gets killed unarmed, there are dozens and hundreds of people with mental illness that are forced to be criminalized and have these types of engagements with law enforcement every single day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Marc, I wanted to ask you about the response of President Trump immediately because of the protests, and also there was some violence and looting that occurred, but there have been now pretty credible reports that there have been agents provocateurs in many of these protests across the country. I recommend the article that CounterPunch had early this month that detailed several of these cities, including they mention in Philadelphia in June, numerous reports circulated that peaceful protests across the state were being infiltrated by white supremacists. And they quoted there the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission director Chad Dion Lassiter, who said, “What I saw was a coordinated effort of looting encouraged by white supremacists who [hide] behind signs demanding justice while promoting anarchy.” Could you talk about the violence that has erupted now in the last couple of days from these protests, and also how President Trump is responding, trying to use what’s happened here to say that there are definitely now poll watchers needed in Philadelphia, trying to utilize this violence as part of his campaign in Philadelphia?

MARC LAMONT HILL: Yeah, a couple of things. First, yeah, there are agents provocateurs. We saw it on the ground in Ferguson. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw it in June with my own eyes. I saw it Monday — excuse me, Tuesday, with — Monday, excuse me, with my own eyes. When you look at what’s happening on the ground, it’s often not the people who are righteously rebelling who are engaged in these wanton acts of reckless violence. And it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s important to acknowledge that this then becomes the pretext for people like Donald Trump — and Governor Wolf, for that matter — calling in more military — calling for more militarization, calling in more police, calling in more troops, as a means of engaging in more violence and really squelching the dissent.

But it’s also important to say that even when people on the ground are engaged in acts of resistance, that this is righteous resistance. I don’t want to simply dismiss all acts of pushback and rebellion to provocateurs. It’s important to say that the state is killing us, and we have a right to respond. We have a right to scar public tissue. We have a right to have our voices heard. These aren’t riots; these are rebellions. That’s what I talk about in my book We Still Here. These are rebellions that are intended to force the world to pay attention, because no one pays attention to Black death unless it affects their money or they think their lives or their safety is threatened. I’m not suggesting we go out and kill people. What I am saying, though, is that we have to use some form of resistance, some form of rebellion, if we are to have our voices heard.

AMY GOODMAN: On that point of the white supremacists, we are seeing one arrest after another that the initial breaking of the glass, the initial fires that are set — now there are actually arrests of those white supremacists involved. In fact, we talked about this yesterday with Alicia Garza. It was Vice President Mike Pence who, in his Republican National Convention address, brought in the relative of a federal security guard who was killed in Oakland as if he was killed by Black Lives Matter activists, but he was killed by a “boogaloo boi,” who was arrested, and it was well known. But your point is not lost, Marc, how — the response to these killings, the responses within the protests, and what you think needs to happen now? We were looking at some of your tweets over the last days. On Monday, you wrote, “Abolition now.” Can you talk about Wallace’s killing in light of the movement to defund the police? I mean, as you said, every — when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think something like half the city budget of Louisville — that’s, of course, where Breonna Taylor was killed by police — half the budget is for the police.

MARC LAMONT HILL: And that’s exactly the problem. An abolitionist vision, of course, ultimately is a world without policing and prisons. And that builds on the work of Critical Resistance, the wonderful work of Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other important Black feminist voices, radical Black feminists, who encourage us to have these ambitious sort of freedom dreams of what the world could be. It’s important to think about that.

But it’s not just about what we’re getting rid of. It’s what we want. We want a world where people’s needs are met, where people can have access to jobs, where people can have access to mental health support. And without those things, then we’re going to continue to end up with circumstances like this.

That’s why I say an example like what we see with Walter Wallace is exactly why we need abolition, because the money we’re spending for policing should be spent to provide mental health. When people call for defunding, they’re saying, “What would it mean for a public safety force to come out rather than police? What would it mean to have a social worker or a therapist on the scene instead of these police who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later?” This is the problem. We need to reimagine what the world looks like. And we need to reimagine our social arrangement. For me, that is abolition.

So, as we fight on the ground — and we saw this in June — we went from a call to abolition, to a call to defunding, to a call to integrate police forces, to a call to reform, to police taking knees and members of Congress wearing kente cloth, right? We’ve watered down our freedom dream. We’ve taken the teeth out of the radical demand. We need to return to this vision of a future without policing and without prisons.

And to start, we begin with this defunding. Defunding is a step toward abolition, if we’re doing this the right way. And so, in Philadelphia, in Milwaukee, in Louisville, we need to be calling to take money out of these police force budgets and place them in places where people can actually have their needs met. That’s the key here. It’s like Kiese Laymon says: good love, healthy choices and second chances. We need a structure that allows for those things to happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Marc, along that line, how do you assess how the city of Philadelphia has handled this particular shooting now of Walter Wallace? And often you find progressive politicians — you supposedly have one in Philadelphia in Mayor Kenney — and they end up, little by little, being influenced sharply by the enormous power that police unions and their supporters have, whether it’s in the city municipal governments or at the state level. How do you see the city handling not only this situation, but the whole issue of defunding police?

MARC LAMONT HILL: Yeah, Mayor Kenney has essentially thrown his hands up. Larry Krasner, maybe one of the most progressive district attorneys in the country, I think, has made tremendous moves forward. But the question right now is: How do you engage once there’s a police shooting? It’s one thing to decriminalize things. It’s one thing to eliminate cash bail. These are all necessary moves toward abolition. But what we have right now is a situation where the police union continues to lead a path toward reinforcing militarization, toward justifying bad shoots. We have a Black police commissioner, who I think and who I know cares about Black people, but, again, the structure is the problem. And unfortunately, the mayor, the City Council and many people around the city can’t imagine a world without policing and prisons. And so we have to reorient them. That means our call on the ground has to be consistent, because what politicians are doing right now is saying we need community policing. What they’re saying right now is we need body cameras. But these are all reform measures that can convince the world that policing, as an institution, is still a viable possibility.

And what we see in the case of Walter Wallace, as opposed to, say, a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, is that it’s not, because, again, when a George Floyd happens, which is a moral atrocity, everybody agrees that that’s bad, and they say, “Let’s get rid of the crazy cops that did it.” With Breonna Taylor, they can say, “Let’s get rid of the bad apples.” But when you see Walter Wallace Jr. laying on the ground and his mother crying for help as the police shoot her baby down in front of her, what we see is that the institution of policing is not designed to deal with mental illness or homelessness or domestic violence or rape culture or any of the other extraordinary social ills that we wrestle with. We need something different.

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