Race And Law In Philadelphia
RACE AND THE LAW IN PHILADELPHIA
If youre ever driving down I-95 through Philadelphia, you will notice an exit for Allegheny Avenue. Allegheny Ave is one of the most dangerous parts of Philly you can drive through. Predominantly black with some Puerto Ricans and a handful of whites, Allegheny is situated between the Delaware River and abandoned industrial complexes. Windows are kept closed and doors are locked as you drive past bums, drug dealers, scorched abandoned cars, sleazy strip bars, cops and crack heads. You can buy cocaine and marijuana on almost every side street just by driving down with your window rolled down. Corners with lots of shoes hanging from a single telephone poll advertise heroin and crack. Once you drive under the L-train, you can amuse yourself by playing the spot-the-prostitute-game. Paddy wagons are never parked to far away and cops patrol by, ignoring the misdemeanors around them and just trying to make worthwhile arrests.
If you go no more than 20 minutes west, youll end up in Manyunk, which is directly on the border of Philadelphia, and to residents, is considered part of it. Unlike Allegheny Ave, the main street is littered with import stores, hip coffee houses, yuppie bars and colorful banners that welcome you to the town. Its a perfect place for happy couples and families to go for shopping, dinning, and entertainment.
The surrounding neighborhoods mainly consist of white people who have grown up in Philadelphia. There are plenty of barking dogs, swing sets and kids who play street hockey without a worry besides being home by dinner. The families are mainly blue-collar workers that are able to send their kids to parochial schools. Everyone knows everyone else in the neighborhood and you get the sense that people watch out for each other. Occasionally a cop will patrol by but nothing ever really goes on besides the occasional breaking of the noise curfew. All in all, there isnt a lot of law enforcement there because there doesnt need to be.
Youre probably wondering why these two neighborhoods are different. A lot of different factors come into play but I will attempt to explain it anyway. First, environment definitely seems to be a big factor in the direction a community will take. Allegheny Ave is pretty much detached from a lot of the city. The schools are seriously over-crowded and are known to be dangerous. The only jobs in the area are convenience stores, fast-food stores, being a cop, drug dealing, or leaving the area to work somewhere else. So theres this secluded and over-populated place with a joke of an educational system and lack of decent paying jobs and filled with a whole bunch of alienated minorities, and of course people are going to find an alternate means to live. Theyre never going to run out of people to sell drugs to so the logic is understandable. Who wants to settle for a crappy job and never go anywhere? They know from when theyre young how the drug trade works, what their options are if they dont conform, and what their relationship with law is and that keeps the neighborhood from changing to a place like Allegheny Ave. You can see eleven-year-old kids selling drugs from their front doors. The same thing applies to the Manyunk community. The kids are shown how to live within that community and either conform to it or go somewhere else. The life that they know involves going to school, getting a job and a place to live and all that stuff that American society wants you to do.
However, the community itself isnt the only thing that dictates how people will live. The way you are treated when you come from a particular community plays a big part as well. This seems obvious to me by the amount of cop cars and paddy wagons on Allegheny, as opposed to the lack of police enforcement in Manyunk. Also, the only reason people go to Allegheny Ave, that dont know people there, is to buy drugs. It is interesting when I talk to other people who are from Philadelphia and mention Allegheny Ave. Everyone knows what goes on there.
Then, I decided to ask myself, Why is one neighborhood crime-infested and the other a socially acceptable place to want to raise a family? Well, its a well-known fact that if you go into any part of the city that has low-income housing, you can find murder and drug related crime. This sounds like a bad stereotype, but it is true. Knowing this is probably a big factor in how people from these areas are treated by the outside world.
In order to change these factors would require more work than anyone is willing to do so we are forced to deal with the resulting conflicts. Here are a few examples:
In McCleskey v. Kemp, a black man was convicted of murdering a white cop and sentenced to death. He appealed the decision, saying that it was a violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendment. First McCleskey said that the death penalty was unconstitutional under the eighth amendment, which dealt with cruel and unusual punishment. He also, under the fourteenth amendment, tried to prove that race is a factor when dealing out the death sentence by having a statistical study done, attempting to show that capital sentencing in Georgia was racially discriminative. The study found that blacks are more likely to receive the death sentence than whites, especially if the victim was white. Even though the study may show that prejudice could be a factor in deciding capital punishment, the Court decided it couldnt be used as evidence. Justice Powell gave the courts opinion, stating that each case is treated individually, and that if each wasnt, McCleskeys argument would apply to every case where a black man was convicted for killing a white. Also, the guidelines that are followed when dealing out the death sentences are supposed to make it impossible to channel the sentencers discretion because discretion is focused on the particular nature of the crime and the particularized characteristic of the individual defendant. So, in other words, they were treating him like every other black guy.
Heres another example thats a little more recent. In 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio journalist, was convicted of murdering a white police officer and put on death row. Much has been debated whether or not Mumia was guilty because there wasnt enough evidence to actually prove that he was the murderer. Many people feel that he was framed; mainly because of his affiliation with the black panthers and because of the reputation Philadelphia cops have for their treatment of minorities.
In both cases, the defendants are trying to make a structured case arguing that they are not lawless criminals, but are made out to be lawless by their society. They both feel that they would be treated more leniently if they were white, especially with Mumia, considering it hasnt even been proven whether or not he is guilty. Also, in both cases the opinion of the court seems to reflect a fear that closer inspection of each court system would open a whole can of worms that they dont want to go through the trouble of; such a statement seems to suggest a fear of too much justice