Philadelphia Combat Zones

January 30, 2008

All over the news end of November last year was the murder of Sean Bell by the NYPD. It was his wedding night and the unarmed Bell was gunned down by 50 shots from plainclothes police. But as the year (which was one of Philadelphia’s deadliest) was coming to a close, Philly cops had already put an end to the lives of 20 Philadelphians. 2006 marked the deadliest year at the hands of cops since 1980. We currently boast the deadliest police force of all big cities in the US with more killings than New York City, which has 13 times the population. Just minutes into 2007, as firecrackers and celebratory (for once) gunshots thundered through our neighborhoods, Philly cops took another life. 20 year old Bryan Jones was shot dead by cops in Overbrook, reportedly responding to New Years revelers who had shot at a cruiser. Jones was unarmed and by all accounts not in any way involved in the gunfire.

At 2am on January 14th, a man with a knife on 9th and Market was shot and killed after allegedly yelling "Kill Me!" at police. Though the number of bullets weren’t reported, there was no doubt a plentiful barrage. A man in a parked car nearby was also hit and wounded, but survived. Seemingly without a trace of irony our local news outlets featured experts discussing "Suicide by Cop" as a mental health disorder.

January 17 another man was killed by police after an armed robbery.

January 20th, cops killed unarmed 16 year old Tyron Sparks while responding to a robbery in northeast Philadelphia. Police later told press that Sparks had first pulled a sawed off shotgun, but no gun was found on him. It turned out that Sparks also had nothing to do with the robbery.

State violence aside, last year’s violence, measuring over 400 in murders in Philadelphia was itself a powerful resonator of a more generalized violence. The popular violence on Philly streets coincides with an increase of spectacular violence (violence portrayed on the media), a continuing increase in prison population (still disproportionately high compared to increases in anti-social violence or legal crime, still racially disproportionate to crimes committed). It happens to coincide with the continuing polarization of already disparate wealth and resources. And it’s virtually impossible to ignore the increase in the systemic globalization of state violence as we see it devastate Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere.

Predictably, the violence also coincides with numerous opportunistic proposals by politicians for alarming increases in repression and social control. The Day after MLK Day, Ex-City? Councilman Michael Nutter, presumably as part of his mayoral campaign, proposed declaring a "State of Emergency" in order to allow police to randomly search and frisk in areas with high-crime. Read poor neighborhoods; in Philly read black and poor neighborhoods. Nutter even defended himself in the press by using Bush’s post 911 retractions of basic freedoms as acceptable precedents for his own mini version of the Patriot Act.

State Rep Chakka Fattah, another mayoral candidate goes even farther. In addition to providing the funds for police to increase their numbers as much as THEY (yes the police) feel is necessary, he suggests the city should install 1,000 surveillance cameras in hotspots and communities with high crime rates, something current mayor Street is already implementing on a smaller scale. This would include "forensic imaging technology", ie. cameras equipped with computer software to identify people in public based on their facial structure and could identify whether someone is carrying a gun from their posture. Another part of Fattah’s proposal is to "Collaborate with Businesses to Make Their Surveillance Camera Footage Available to the Philadelphia Police Department."

Fattah’s plan sounds conspicuously inspired by that of DARPA’s Combat Zones That See (CTS), a project intended to be implemented in Baghdad and other urban combat zones. CTS is a network of thousands of surveillance cameras, which like the Fattah proposal are plugged into a computer system capable of reading license plates, recognizing faces and matching them with information already in their "terrorist databases". CTS uses software which can also trace the paths of individuals and cars throughout a city. DARPA’s budget estimate for 2007 puts aside almost nine million dollars specifically for developing and testing CTS.

Ironically CTS doesn’t seem to have been implemented in Baghdad so far. Here in our own combat zone, Philly would be among the trailblazers in such social control. Philly’s deadliest year in recent history is just the sort of local September 11th needed to make social control nightmares like these real.

Other mayoral candidates are more or less in the same boat. State rep Dwight Evans wants to bring back John Timoney (Phila police comissioner when Philly cops beat and arrested over 400 anti-Bush and anti-prison protesters) to deal with the violence in his own famous style. Tom Knox also sees flooding Philly with cops as a good thing for our city. Of course there’s been some lip service to social causes of crime amongst appeals for increasing fascism, but these are in essence just asides; none of the plans have any serious positive social component.

There’s no doubt that there is a crisis. On top of last years victims of the decentered generalized street warfare thousands of mostly young black men were locked up in a prison system which has no apparent effect in controlling anti-social violence while police killed a record number of poor Philadelphians. There are of course connections between all of this. Even Mayor Street commented on the connections between the Philly and Iraq combat zones earlier this month. But I’m standing here on Lancaster Ave. Here where commodity culture, neglect, racism and class war have for years sowed seeds of human devaluation, desperation, poverty; where opportunity and capital dangles lures of comfort and wealth out of reach just blocks away; where prison is just a fact of life, it’s not hard to see this violence as part of an overarching network.

Let’s face it, violence is being increasingly normalized. Fear and violence is valuable official currency and it’s increasingly accepted. And this makes for some hard questions. For one, how does one go about stopping a war waged by a state against a people. We have the war as waged by the Pentagon in the middle east and we have our combat zones right here in the form of poverty, the criminal injustice system here at home.. In the case of our government’s global wars, we have faces, institutions where we can point fingers; perhaps wage our own war against wars. But it’s a different matter with a generalized social spread of violence. One could see our Philly combat zones as product of cultural virus, brought to poor neighborhoods like the smallpox infested blankets offered to Native Americans by white settlers. Instead of smallpox we have a capitalist infested culture that spreads dehumanization and cravings for a blinding vast poverty of products and capitalist status symbols. It’s a culture that turns potential social creativity into profit for elites , turns rebellion into vicious competition (that often openly mimics the competition we see in "legitimate" capitalism).

It will take a creative struggle to turn this around. And though often drowned out by politicians visions for social control or religious tunnel vision, we’ve also seen a year of community action from across the political spectrum. In November anti-war and anti-poverty groups joined forces for a "March Under the El" to bring the wasted resources from the war to light as well as make solid connections between the Iraq war and the poverty which fuels a good deal of the violence in Philly. Uhuru has consistently called attention to killings by police. Groups like Men United for a Better Philadelphia have taken to the streets offering some alternatives in their neighborhoods. We’ve seen Stop the Violence dance parties and Hip Hop events, the Spiral Q puppet theater brought the message to last year’s Peoplehood parade. Among the most interesting events to read about was largely organized by the Lifers United Community Action Network, a group of Lifers at Graterford prison. The group managed to hold a live Satellite broadcast event " dubbed the Return of the Missing Men, where prisoners addressed Philly teens gathered at a Union Hall about the need to create communities that are safe. We should see this struggle as a social struggle that goes beyond any sort of politics we see descend on us from city hall (or the Pentagon).

It definitely takes all sorts to to get out of a mess like this. But it will also take more than "educational opportunities" or other methods of assimilating so much street rage into more legitimate forms of mutual abuse. No mayor can snuff out Philly rage with any sort of social control program. If a real alternative could be derailing this rage from its current capitalist forms into a rich social rebellion; a transformation of competitive capitalist logic into social solidarity and mutual aid; guns keeping cops from dragging off our brothers and sisters to prison instead of being used for the current collective suicide...

... well that’s any mayors biggest nightmare. Let’s bring it on.

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by dave onion .... twitter / mastodon