Leaders, Business Owners Look Forward After Protests

huge crowd of protesters gathered on Philadelphia Parkway
This cropped version of a panaroma photo shows the massive gathering that took place on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on June 6, 2020. | Photo by Rob Bulmahn is licensed under CC BY 2.0

City Councilman Allan Domb has received more than 15,000 emails and phone calls since the protests of George Floyd’s death began in May.

“Many people are angry and frustrated right now; there’s all kinds of emotion. People have been speaking out but feel they haven’t been heard until now. My heart breaks when I read the personal stories people shared,” he said.

Political leaders like Domb are tasked with responding to the pain and anger demonstrated during the protests, which have been held worldwide and have brought Philadelphia national attention after thousands streamed onto the Parkway this week.

Domb called for a review of the culture that fostered unjust police practices and for officers to establish closer connections with the communities they serve. He also thanked Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and the officers “who are doing their job every day and putting their lives on the line.”

He was one of 14 City Council members who signed a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney on June 8 that read, in part, “We cannot accept the proposed $14 million increase to the police budget” for fiscal year 2021. It cited the need for police to earn the trust of communities and for funding to be allocated to social services.

On June 9, Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement in response to the protests.

“We saw the hurt and frustration of black Americans — and their allies — on full display. Here at home and across the country, communities gathered to proclaim a simple but powerful truth: Black Lives Matter,” he said.

He committed to a series of reforms for the Philadelphia Police Department, including an update to its use of force policy and the elimination of the proposed budget increase.

City Council also announced the “New Normal Budget Act” on June 5, which would allocate $25 million to anti-poverty programs, including housing support, job training and food access.

Hannah Sassaman, policy director at the nonprofit Media Alliance Project, said the act isn’t enough given that the Philadelphia Police Department had a $726 million budget for the fiscal year ending June 30.

“While investment in vital anti-poverty programs is extraordinarily important, the movement in the streets of Philadelphia right now is calling to defund the police and invest in what works — housing, jobs and education,” she said.

State Rep. Jared Solomon of the 202nd District is interested in three main reforms proposed by the Pennsylvania Black Caucus.

“One is that any issues of police misconduct, that needs to be handled by an independent actor. I don’t know if that’s just a lawyer who acts as an ombudsman or a special council. That will take a lot of pressure off our DAs throughout the commonwealth,” he said.

Second, he wants to see a better definition of excessive force, ideally created by the federal government so all 50 states can take a uniform approach to addressing police misconduct.

Third, he wants to correct funding inequities in schools serving minority communities and increase funding for programs that address food and housing access.

He wants to get beyond sending thoughts and prayers to the Floyd family.

“It’s a starting point, and I understand that, but because we’ve said it so many times it begins to ring hollow. Everyone, especially those of us in diverse communities, needs to get beyond that and think, ‘What can I do to be a part of the solution?’”

Business leaders are also regrouping after widespread looting.

supermarket interior with damage from looters
The ShopRite in Parkside West was looted on May 31, leaving much damage. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, owns a ShopRite in Parkside that was looted for 15 hours on May 31. His ShopRite in East Falls was also looted.

“We couldn’t get any help,” said his wife, Sandy Brown, director of Brown’s Super Stores.

People stole food and destroyed equipment, including self-scanners and cash registers. Sandy Brown said the staff did not recognize any of the looters in their stores.

“These communities fought for years to get a supermarket, and we have very loving relationships with them,” she said.

Thanks to the cleanup efforts of community members, the East Falls store reopened on June 5 and the Parkside store reopened on June 7.

The Browns partnered with the Share Food Program to donate perishable items to food pantries.

“We thought this was important because the two stores that got looted were in food deserts, and with the stores closed they became food deserts again. People without transportation couldn’t eat,” Jeff Brown said.

Mara Natkins, director of development for Share Food Program, was heartbroken to see the damage to the East Falls store.

“It’s a beautiful store. It looks like one you would see in a suburban area. It’s a store that says everyone deserves food access,” she said. “They’re really an anchor in the community, a good employer for people, really an important source of food.”

She said Share Food Program sent vans to help transport the perishable goods to community organizations in the Parkside and Allegheny neighborhoods.

Tracey Specter, a Share Food Program board member, said the donations helped fight hunger that has been worsening due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve been visiting a number of the sites where the food is being distributed in Philadelphia, and just talking with volunteers it’s just very clear that the need is growing. People are saying, ‘I’m out of a job, and it’s so helpful that I’m able to get a box of food,’” she said.

Jeff Brown is also a founding board member of the PA 30 Day Fund, co-founded by Jeff Bartos and Roger Braunfeld, which is providing forgivable loans to small businesses struggling during the pandemic. The organization has raised $650,000 in three weeks and received a matching grant donation of $1 million from  Ira Lubert and Pam Eistadt.

“With what’s gone on with the virus and the destruction in the city, we just felt it was appropriate to help these folks who have businesses to try to get back on their feet. Our hope is that a lot of other people will step up and match ours so we’ll have $2 million to give to folks who really need it,” Lubert said.

The PA 30 Day fund has committed $100,000 to small businesses impacted by looting. As of June 8, the organization has received 1,000 applications and approved 100.

“A lot of businesses are just shut down, and when you shut down a small business you just bankrupt most people because you take away their financial resources,” Jeff Brown said.

He added that the forgivable loans would help small businesses that didn’t qualify for aid under the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

“I’m not thinking about the vandalism at this point because it’s not productive. I’m thinking more about how the work we’ve been doing is a model for how we can move forward,” Brown said.

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