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Nov 12, 20

About to Explode: Notes on the #WalterWallaceJr Rebellion in Philadelphia

The following analysis and reflection looks at the recent rebellion in Philadelphia following the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr.

by Gilets Jawns

Nearly every week since the beginning of this long, hot summer, a different city has occupied the center stage of this particularly American drama. Through this passing of the torch, the sequence of riots had has dragged on for far longer than anyone could have expected. Every time it seemed as if the wave has finally crashed, another city went up in flames. In the last days before the election, Philadelphia, the largest city in perhaps the most significant swing state, had a turn to carry the torch.

But, in the aftermath of the climatic violence in Kenosha, each new riot has been less able to mobilize wider layers of society or capture the public imaginary. It is too soon to tell whether this summer of unrest has finally run its course, or if a faction of black proletarians will continue to carry forward the struggle on their own. It may be that, for now, the spectacle of the election simply towers over the spectacle of insurrection. Nonethless, the riots in Philadelphia leave us with questions about the composition and tactics of movement, and the role of pro-revolutionaries within it.

I.

Walter Wallace Jr., a father and aspiring rapper with a history of mental illness, was having a crisis and acting erratically. Someone from Wallace’s family called 911, hoping to have him temporarily hospitalized. Soon, rather than the ambulance his family expected, the officers from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) arrived. Officers on the scene were told by his family that Wallace was having a mental health crisis. Nonetheless, within minutes Wallace had been shot at over a dozen times. Walter Wallace, Jr. was pronounced dead soon after arriving at the hospital.

Shakey cellphone footage capturing the incident ends with Wallace’s family and neighbors confronting and screaming at the police officers on the scene. Everybody knew it was about to explode.

With the police retreating, a festive mood set it. The crowd set off fireworks and set about looting.

That afternoon, the video began to circulate on social media, along with a flier calling for a demonstration that evening at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, not far from the site of the shooting. Several hundred joined a rowdy march to the nearby 18th Precinct, through the neighborhood, and eventually back towards the precinct. A breakaway march left for University City, where a campus police station and substation had their windows broken, along with a police cruiser.

Clashes between demonstrators and riot police broke out near the 18th Precinct and the crowd spilled over onto 52nd street, the nearest commercial strip, where a police car was set on fire and another one had its windows broken. Dumpsters were dragged into the street and set on fire as well.

With the police retreating, a festive mood set in. The crowd set off fireworks and set about looting. Along that stretch of 52nd Street, most of the storefronts belong to small, black-owned businesses: bookstores, beauty salons, restaurants. This constrained how much the looting spread, for now. When riot police eventually charged the crowd, most people took off running down side streets, jumped into cars, and disappeared.

Looting soon broke out all over the city, as groups drove around breaking into pharmacies, liquor stores, and chain stores.

Drunk men took on the roll of town crier, walking from block to block enthusiastically shouting the news from elsewhere in the neighborhood:where looting was taking place, where groups were headed now.

A crowd regrouped in West Philadelphia, where things began to take on the form of a classic community riot. Police were fought back with bricks and bottles until they retreated. On the stretch of blocks now vacated by the police, much of the neighborhood was out in the street or on their porches. Young people broke up bricks on the sidewalk, in anticipation of another battle. Others drank, debated, enthusiastically greeted their neighbors, shared looted goods, and cheered on the youth as they fought with or ran from the police. Everyone present shared in the revelry of the moment, even if they didn’t partake in, or even openly criticized, the potlatch of destruction.

People calmly walked in and out in and out of bodegas and pharmacies, taking what they needed. “Is there any kid’s cereal left? If you don’t have kids, you might not know this. But that shit is expensive.” A whole range of different kinds of people from the neighborhood walked the streets carrying trash bags, weighed down with looted products, slung over their shoulders. Drunk men took on the role of town crier, walking from block to block enthusiastically shouting the news from elsewhere in the neighborhood: where looting was taking place, where groups were headed now.

When riot police inevitably tried to retake the street, just like earlier in the evening, most of the crowd either took off running to their cars, or just went back inside their homes. Someone yelled out an intersection in the neighborhood. People dispersed, regrouped there, and began looting until enough police arrived that it was time to disperse and regroup elsewhere. This pattern was carried on for much of the night.

Tuesday, October 27th

The next morning it was announced that National Guard had been mobilized, and would arrive within the next forty-eight hours. The riot thus had a limited window of time.

A flier circulated for another demonstration at Malcolm X Park that evening. In an almost comically exaggerated act of what the movement has come to call swooping, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) put out a separate call for a march at the exact same location, only an hour earlier. This confusion led to the crowd splitting, with some following the PSL towards Center City and others marching towards the 18th Precinct.

Helicopter news footage showed a parking lot densely packed with idling cars while dozens of people ran out of the store with full shopping carts or flat-screen TVs home appliances.

Over the course of the evening, the group gathered at the precinct, a noticeably larger and more diverse crowd than the previous night, and grew to approximately 400 people.

Meanwhile, a caravan of cars descended on the Wal-Mart in Port Richmond, on the northern end of the city. Helicopter news footage showed a parking lot densely packed with idling cars while dozens of people ran out of the store with full shopping carts or flat-screen TVs and home appliances. One man even managed to get away with a washing machine. Police speculated that up to two hundred people were in the store at once.

The caravan marauded through Aramingo Avenue for the next several hours, storming a Footlocker, a furniture store, a kid’s clothing store, and other box stores along the way. PPD estimated that up to one thousand people participated in the caravan. Wal-Mart announced later that week that, due to the threat of continued social unrest, they would be taking guns and ammunition off of their shop floors.

The crowd at the Precinct marched to 52nd Street, where some people began building barricades in the street. A line of riot police were forced to retreat under a volley of bottles and bricks, and were chased nearly back to their Precinct. Most of the crowd did its best to avoid the street-fighting. The march carried on along 52nd Street, but was soon cut off by a line of a riot police, with much of the crowd either being kettled or dispersed. Several smaller marches criss-crossed the neighborhood for the rest of the evening. One such march, avoiding the heavily-policed area around 52nd Street, left a trail of burning barricades and a looted liquor store in its wake.

Around midnight, with the streets largely evacuated of activists, youth from the neighborhood began to gather in the street. They dragged dumpsters into the street, setting them on fire and threw bricks at the line of riot police on 52nd Street, until the police eventually charged at them. They led the police on a chase for much of the night, stopping occasionally to break up bricks and wait for their enemy to get within striking range, or to drag improvised barricades into the street and set them on fire. Several vehicles were set on fire as well, including an Xfinity van. “That’s for cutting off my wifi, bitch!” The whole proceeding had a festive air to it.

A solidarity demonstration that night in downtown Brooklyn threw bricks at the police, broke the windows of a police car, a court building, and numerous businesses.

Wednesday, October 28th

The next morning, the FBI arrested four people, including a prominent community organizer, who are being charged with arson and accused of having a role in setting three police cars on fire during the uprising in May and June. The FBI made similar arrests and raids in Atlanta that week.

The next morning, the FBI arrested four people in Philadelphia, including a prominent community organizer. They are being charged with arson, for their alleged involvement in riots earlier this summer. Similar FBI raids took place in Atlanta that week as well.

A curfew was declared for 9PM. No protest was called for that evening.

As soon as the sun set, looting started to spread all over the city.

A small crowd gathered outside of the 18th Precinct that evening, but was composed of more journalists than protesters. After being warned by community affairs officers that the gathering was illegal, most of the crowd went home. For the rest of the night, youth from West Philadelphia sporadically clashed with the police and set off fireworks.

Along City Avenue in Merion Park, a caravan of looters ransacked strip malls and box stores. Groups of cars swarmed the area, storming businesses and then stopping at gas stations to regroup and discuss their next move. At times the swarm of looters was so dense that there were traffic jams along the highway.

Dispersed looting continued for the next several days, as did the occasional daytime protest, but neither found a way to relate to each other or pick up momentum on their own. Several days of bad weather didn’t help. This was, perhaps, the first time since May that a curfew had been declared and large crowds did not come out to challenge it. The national guard finally arrived on Friday, too late to prevent any of the rioting.

By the time the unrest had died down, there had been an estimated 225 arrests, 60 injured police officers, 617 incidents of looting, 18 damaged vehicles, and over 50 ATM explosions, according to the city.

///

II.

Innovation

To stay dynamic and overcome the impasses they face, movements need to constantly innovate the tactics they use. In many cities, including Philadelphia, as the large-scale riots and social looting of late May ran their course, the unrest was kept going through a turn to diffuse looting. Rather than struggling with police over a particular territory, groups spanned out by car throughout the entire city and surrounding suburbs. For a time, this happened on such a large scale that there was little that could be done to contain it. Diffuse looting has reemerged sporadically in recent months, during the unrest in Louisville and Philadelphia, as a way to disrupt the city in the absence of large-scale protests.

Philadelphia’s unique tactical innovation has been the introduction of ATM bombings: groups detonate small explosive devices on an ATM and, ostensibly, walk away with the cash. During the heady days of May and early June, the sound of explosions became a part of the background ambiance of the city where American democracy was born. This tactic reemerged during late October’s unrest. There were likely a dozen ATM bombings each of the three major nights of unrest. This tactic has yet to spread elsewhere, likely due to the amount of technical knowledge required.

As soon as the sun set, looting started to spread all over the city.

The major innovation this summer has its origins in Chicago. After police shot Latrell Allen on Chicago’s Southside, a caravan of looters poured into the downtown Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s most famous shopping district, breaking windows and emptying out luxury stores. For the next few hours, this caravan marauded throughout the city, evading the police and looting luxury boutiques, pharmacies, and liquor stores. This tactic was repeated on a smaller scale in Louisville in September and on a perhaps larger scale in Philadelphia.

These tactics indicate a much higher degree of coordination, organization, and boldness of initiative than is within reach of any activist, leftist, or revolutionary group at the moment. The fact that innovations, like the caravan, tend to leap from city to city indicates that proletarians are paying attention to how the struggle is unfolding elsewhere. It also shows that the choice of tactics isn’t arbitrary, but is grounded in an intelligent read of the situation proletarians find themselves struggling within.

These innovative tactics have so far allowed comparatively small groups to overwhelm police departments and disrupt the flows of the city. But there are clear limits to how much these high-risk actions might generalize. They, in fact, seem premised on the boldest layers of the proletariat acting alone. This perhaps indicates that black proletarians no longer expect the large, multiracial crowds that joined them in the outbreaks of rioting and proletarian shopping earlier this summer.

Composition

These recent nights in Philadelphia pose a challenge to the hypothesis that this has been a multiracial uprising. Or rather, they seem to indicate that the “rigid lines of separation” that appeared to break down in May are quickly re-emerging. Throughout the country, the crowds that flooded the streets in May and June closely corresponded to the demographics of the city they were in. White people, in fact, were often over-represented compared to their share of the total population of the given city. It was only during some of the most intense moments of looting that the participants were mostly black, but never exclusively so. The riots and demonstrations were also rarely confined to particular black or working class neighborhoods, but rather tended to envelope the entire city.

Instead, during the recent riots in Philadelphia, black proletarians stood largely alone. When multiracial crowds did come together, they were largely unable to overcome the separations that had been so easily dissolved earlier in the summer. If these activists had hoped to express their support for the rioting, they had the perhaps inverse effect of stifling it, as people from the neighborhood hesitated to see how these newcomers might act. For moments on Monday and Tuesday night, a multiracial crowd worked together to build barricades and attack the police. But more often than not, even when different elements of the crowd took part in the rioting, they did so separately. Each night by midnight, almost no one was left on the streets who wasn’t black.

These tactics indicate a much higher degree of coordination, organization, and boldness of initiative than is within reach of any activist, leftist, or revolutionary group at moment.

A certain amount of hesitation around whether or how to act in the streets likely results from anxiety around these “rigid lines of separation.” Debates abounded in the streets, on Telegram channels, and within activists’ circles about the proper way to relate to the black struggle. It is worth remembering though that this anxiety is often only one-sided. People from outside of the neighborhood who showed up for the riots were at times treated with suspicion, until they made clear that they were there for the same reasons as everyone else. Then they were widely embraced. Those taking initiative in the streets were glad that others had joined them, especially if they had something to contribute.

It is not simply that separations reasserted themselves within and between the crowds. The riot did not spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, and only a minority of the immediate neighborhood ever participated in a significant way. No wider layers of the class ever came into the streets, and the activist crowd that mobilized never exceeded a few hundred people. Solidarity demonstrations, with the exception of the one in Brooklyn, were small and attended only by committed activists.

What Are We to Do?

Those of us who want to see the leap from riot to insurrection, to see this long, hot season stretch into an endless summer will need to find ways to contribute to this unfolding. Rather than being paralyzed by anxiety, pro-revolutionaries should consider what practical knowledge and capacities they have to offer.

This is often quite simple. One way in which pro-revolutionaries make themselves useful is by holding onto the memory of lessons learned in previous struggles and experiments. This can be as basic as reminding people to wear masks or showing them how to use Telegram to outsmart the police. There are certain gestures, such as circulating a call for a demonstration, that often only anarchists will do, that can be necessary to keep things moving forward.

The effects of these small steps are fairly clear in hindsight. Despite their awkwardness, the two evening demonstrations spilled over into riots, while the other nights only saw more diffuse actions. This is because they provide a space for those who want to take initiative to find each other. Likewise, for those who may not want to take initiative but support the riots,the demonstrations allow them to express that publicly in a way that provides cover for others. The evening demonstrations also provided cover for the looting happening elsewhere by occupying much of the city’s police force along 52nd Street.

With the declaration of a curfew and the threat of the national guard, providing some basic street presence to act within by calling for another evening demonstration, could have created the conditions for the unrest to keep going for a few days longer. In this sense, a small intervention by pro-revolutionaries could have been significant.

Rather than being paralyzed by anxiety, pro-revolutionaries should consider what practical knowledge and capacities they have to offer.

Otherwise, pro-revolutionaries try to read the dynamics of a given struggle and how to contribute to its unfolding. This can look like trying to take initiative in a way that may resonate and be taken up by other members of the crowd. Even if we may stand out from the crowd, when the gestures we take prove themselves to be sensible, people tend to recognize them. Other times, simply having the foresight to bring tools, whether crowbars, fireworks, umbrellas, or a sound-system, can go a long way towards contributing to the dynamic of an event.

This point may seem banal, but it’s worth remembering. After the first days of the uprising in New York City, much bigger crowds began to come into the streets. In these moments, the “rigid lines of separations” between elements of the crowd could be felt reemerging. Many of the new participants were inspired by images of the uprising, but in person were as afraid of the actuality of the riot as they were of the police. They desperately looked for people to appoint into leadership roles who then tried their best to micromanage the demonstrations. Young black proletarians in the crowd began to sense their isolation and, by the the end of the first week, stopped coming out. If others in the crowd had also tried to take initiative, it’s possible they could have contributed to a circumstance where the black avant-garde didn’t feel constrained, perhaps extending the uprising even longer.

In this sense, solidarity literally means attack. The more pro-revolutionaries have felt the confidence to act, they more they have been able to meaningfully contribute to the unfolding of this struggle set in motion by black proletarians.

These leaps forward in proletarian self-organization and tactics this year present pro-revolutionaries with a particular dilemma. If our role has been to contribute to the intensification and generalization of struggles, to push towards their insurrectionary horizon, what becomes our role when proletarian self-activity takes on a form much more daring and risky than many of us are ready for? When these tactics already entail such a degree of coordination and intensity, even if pro-revolutionaries are to participate, it is not clear what we have to contribute.

The election is now in the rear-view mirror. While the dust has not yet settled, it may turn out to be the case that the left’s fascination with the possibility of a coup or civil war only obscured from us the more difficult questions raised by this moment. The black avant-garde may continue to blaze ahead on its own, struggling with an intensity that many cannot participate in. In the coming weeks or months, we may-continue to see riots with the same intensity as Philadelphia, but also with the same isolation. If we cannot find a way to meaningful contribute to this dynamic, pro-revolutionaries might face a difficult choice of whether to join them on this path, taking increasing risks without a clear horizon. This riddle may solve itself as struggles once again generalize and new tactics proliferate, but that is not something we can take for granted.

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