Rachel López, associate professor of law, and Lauren Katz Smith, assistant clinical professor, along with law students from the Kline School of Law’s Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic (SCLC) and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, have submitted a complaint to the United Nations (U.N.) documenting the human rights abuses that were perpetrated by the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) this summer during the Black Lives Matter protests.
The complaint outlines how the PPD brought to bear overwhelming, racially-targeted, and excessive force to discourage these protesters from exercising their constitutional and human rights. Namely, the submission describes how on May 31 the PPD unleashed a variety of less lethal weapons, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, in a residential neighborhood in West Philadelphia near 52nd Street, putting protesters’ and residents’ lives at risk. It also describes the police officers’ unlawful use of these weapons during a protest on Highway 676 on June 1 that threatened the safety and wellbeing of protesters and bystanders alike. At the same time, the complaint documents how the PPD emboldened white groups, who identified as vigilantes, to take over streets and parks, and harass and attack protesters for Black lives.
“Our goal in submitting this filing to the United Nations is to push the City of Philadelphia to apologize for these atrocious acts and adopt policies regarding the use of less lethal weapons, such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, that are in line with human rights law,” said López, who directs the SCLC.
The SCLC submitted this complaint to U.N. Special Rapporteurs Agnes Callamard, Tendayi Achiume and Clément Nyaletsossi Voule. Should the Special Rapporteurs decide to initiate an investigation, they will send a formal communication to the City of Philadelphia requesting additional information about the incidents described in the filing. If the city officials do not respond in a satisfactory and timely way, the Special Rapporteurs will issue a public statement condemning the acts and recommending specific policies on the use of less lethal weapons for Philadelphia to adopt along with other remedies such reparations, according to López.
“When we spoke with community members who witnessed these events, the unanimous message was ‘this city needs to change now,’” said 3L Ryan Nasino, who helped compile the complaint. “It was always crucial for us to center and amplify those voices.”
Katz Smith, who interviewed victims of the 52nd Street incident, noted that part of the goal for the complaint was to allow victims the chance to imagine what justice might look like and to propose reparations and policy change. “The complaint seeks to elevate the voices and ideas of the most marginalized members of our community and to advocate for a radical reimagining of public safety in Philadelphia,” said Katz Smith.
Creating room for victim-led changes in this call for accountability is an important counter move to the City’s current and historical practice of using police force to suppress Black voices. This torrid history, which is outlined extensively in the complaint, shows the prevalence of a Machiavellian, “ends justify the means” ideology throughout the PPD. This ideology was first embedded into PPD practices by Frank Rizzo, who ran the department in the late 1960s, and continues to fester in police practices today, according to the complaint.
3L Kathleen Princivalle, who also assisted in producing the complaint, made a similar observation. “The brutal incidents that occurred this summer—most notably on 52nd Street and 676—are not isolated or even new,” she said. “They occurred as a result of the City’s allowance (even praise) of violent and racist police tactics for generations.”
The violence that Philadelphians saw this summer and the city’s history of violence and suppression have undermined Philadelphians’ confidence and trust in their city officials, said López. “Without a formal reckoning for these abuses, the City sends a message that police violence is acceptable if concentrated in Black neighborhoods and used against Black residents and those allies who value Black lives.”