Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that the National Guard was deployed to Kensington on June 4. They were deployed on June 3.
Hundreds of Pennsylvania National Guard members are stationed in neighborhoods across Philadelphia in response to a wave of theft and property damage following last weekend’s police brutality protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis on May 25 by white police officer Derek Chauvin.
According to a tweet from Mayor Jim Kenney, the PA National Guard is protecting property in areas where neighborhood businesses and organizations asked the city for additional support. Many of those areas experienced groups of people damaging property and stealing items from businesses, including properties along Kensington Avenue.
In Philadelphia, the wave of property damage and theft took place after another event: a call to action against police brutality. In a video taken by a bystander, Chauvin killed Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly told Chauvin and three other police officers that he couldn’t breathe.
The protests, which started in Minneapolis, quickly spread to other areas of the country. The first protests in Philadelphia were on May 30, and the outrage behind the protests have extended to recent and previous cases of police brutality, systemic and anti-Black racism, and the revised City of Philadelphia budget, which gives a $14 million increase to the police department, compared to the previous version Mayor Kenney proposed before COVID-19.
Why is the National Guard in Kensington and how long will they stay?
The PA National Guard is made up of the state’s Air National Guard and Army National Guard. These part-time soldiers are typically deployed during national disasters or emergencies.
After the first day of protests on May 30, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed an emergency declaration that allowed Philadelphia and other municipalities to request assistance from the PA National Guard.
PA National Guard members have been stationed with an armored vehicle at a few locations along Kensington Avenue since June 3. At the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenue — where people broke into a Walgreens — there is a heavier presence of soldiers and some armored vehicles in the Walgreens parking lot.
“They are in Kensington and in other neighborhoods to support and supplement [Philadelphia Police Department] personnel so police may respond to daily public safety needs throughout the city,” wrote city spokesperson Mike Dunn in an email to Kensington Voice. “Key assignments for the [PA National Guard] are efforts to protect key infrastructure and city buildings along with stemming looting. They will be deployed only as long as deemed necessary. In short, they are here to help.”
According to Dunn, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management determined where the PA National Guard would be stationed. Both agencies are supporting the PA National Guard with operational guidance and supplies.
At some of the locations, Philadelphia Police Department officers are also present alongside the soldiers. Since in some cases National Guard members are sharing the sidewalk with people experiencing homelessness and people using drugs, if they need assistance, they are supposed to contact the police department who would then contact the appropriate support agencies, Dunn said.
For the majority of the day on June 4 and 8, the PA National Guard members stood at their stations and occasionally took photos or had conversations with people driving or walking by. As of right now, there isn’t an end date for the PA National Guard being in Kensington.
“The mayor made clear that the deployment citywide will end as soon as it is no longer needed,” Dunn said.
How does the neighborhood feel about the National Guard’s presence?
Over the last week, community members along Kensington Avenue shared their thoughts about the PA National Guard being in Kensington.
“It’s wonderful. The people that don’t think it’s good are the ones that are looting and everything else.”
“Why are they training and preparing for disasters and going through intense training, to come down to Kensington to see smokers and stuff like that? It’s craziness.”
“We’re not in any real threat. As far as rioting, yeah that’s bad and that’s why they came down here, but it stopped. They’re just seeing regular people. They’re seeing everyday life.”
“I know they probably want to go home, man. Send them people home. They don’t have to be here. They’ve got kids, and family too.”
“We don’t have any bombs going off. There’s nobody really shooting each other or anything like that or something serious where the cops can’t handle it. I don’t agree with them being here. I really don’t.”
“I love it because it’s a lot safer now that they’re here than before. You don’t see a lot of drug activity while they’re here.”
“Weird — very weird. But I guess it’s good because nothing else is happening anymore. The riots stopped, and the looting stopped, so it’s a good thing. They’re nice.”
“It’s a good thing to stop people from breaking in. You got to have law and order here. People are taking advantage of the situation and it shouldn’t be that way. If you’re out here doing wrong, you should be arrested.”
“Their presence and being here is okay in light of all the looting and destruction of the community, which was already suffering.”
“The fact that they would destroy a community that was already going through some troubles. Now, families and elderly don’t have anywhere to get their prescriptions, like the Walgreens and the Rite Aid, and these essential places that people need to actually stay alive were destroyed.”
“So the National Guard’s presence is an okay thing. They’re not really doing anything to harm anybody. They’re just here. I saw a few kids having a conversation with them. It was really pleasant.”
“So I’m glad that they’re here. A lot of stuff on the Ave. has slowed down a bit, so that’s what we needed.”
“That’s great they’re here. A lot of people are saying they’re late, but at least they’re here right now. I’m fine with it. They do a lot for this country. I’m happy they’re here.”
Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.
Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator N/A