Arrest at Philadelphia Zoo Goes Viral, Leads to Unanswered Questions

by Alexandria McFadden

On July 5th, cellular phone video showing Philadelphia police officers wrestling a 14-year-old boy to the ground during an arrest outside of the Philadelphia Zoo went viral, thrusting the East Parkside Community into the spotlight mere weeks after two young men were arrested at a Starbucks in Center City. This episode drew comparisons to other instances of white people calling the police on black people for harmless activities.

Was this incident a symptom of misunderstanding and mistrust between cultural institutions and the Parkside community at large? Why was this incident handled in this fashion and what is being done to prevent issues like these from escalating into arrests? The following story is the result of a two-month Parkside Journal investigation.

What happened?

The video, captured by an onlooker, shows police officers arresting the teen as a group of bystanders look on. Among the witnesses clearly identifiable in the video are members of the Zoo’s public safety staff and a group of unidentified young boys. After the officers wrestle the teen to the ground, one of the public safety officers can be heard screaming “is this what you want?” at another public safety coworker, who apparently flagged down the police officers. In our investigation, we were able to confirm that the incident was either over panhandling or water selling, depending on who is asked.

Dominique Davis, the woman who took the footage, in a comment to her post on Facebook said, “The sad part is these children really wasn’t doing anything wrong. I honestly sat in front of the zoo for about a half an hour and watch[ed] the officer push the minor, then start to manhandle this kid.” As of publication, the video has been shared more than 6,200 times and viewed more than 304,000 times.

To add some clarity to the issue, I reached out to members of the senior leadership team at the Zoo. “This is a lose-lose for everyone,” says Kenneth Woodson, vice president for community and government relations. “The Zoo is unhappy with this, [both] to see a young man arrested and this level of attention. We serve children and families and this community and [we’re] open to everyone.

In order to ensure this kind of incident won’t happen again, the Zoo has met with the Movement for Black Lives and other activists to review staff training and protocols on customer interactions and de-escalation tactics—and to implement new training where needed. Asa Khalif, leader of Black Lives Matter PA, described the meetings as “very productive” and that activists look forward to continuing dialogue with the Zoo as well as participating in their staff diversity trainings.

How are other area institutions responding?

With this incident occurring in Parkside, I began to wonder how the other large cultural institutions relate to the largely African-American population that makes up the Parkside community. Having these institutional neighbors adds to the richness of our community fabric, but when kids get arrested in our neighborhood for being disruptive, it highlights the cultural divide about who these organizations really serve.

Although East Parkside is home to only 3,500 residents, the neighborhood is one of the most visited in the city, with more than 2 million tourists arriving each year. These tourists spend millions of dollars visiting these destinations, but how many of those dollars flow into our neighborhood? What is the benefit to residents who experience streets-long traffic jams, congested parking, and higher car insurance costs (caused by property damage to tourists’ cars)? How do our institutional neighbors welcome our families?  The opportunities for community members to engage with these world-class institutions are vast, but only if everyone comes to the table with a spirit of partnership and understanding. Both the Zoo and the Please Touch Museum, which host the majority of out-of-area visitors, expressed a desire to have good relationships with the East Parkside community in interviews with the Journal. But how does the neighborhood ensure that those good intentions manifest into the kinds of interactions that promote community building while making the area welcome for both tourists and residents, unlike the scene on July 5th?

What can we do going forward?

Lucinda Hudson of the Parkside Association of Philadelphia said, “this will happen again if we don’t have the right kinds of conversations with the right people.” Ms. Hudson, a long-time West Parkside activist and a director on the Mann Music Center’s board, has spent decades building and navigating a relationship with the Mann Music Center. Now, as partners, the Parkside Association and the Mann work together to ease congestion, promote a diverse array of talent, encourage residents to attend events, and reduce noise and trash.

Both the Zoo and the Please Touch Museum have already taken steps in creating community-oriented programming and collaboration. The Please Touch Museum held a Juneteenth festival for families and will host the Marvel character Black Panther in September. Trish Wellenbach, president of the Please Touch Museum, says, “We had to take a look at the community. You have to show not just in words, but in the work that you really understand, that you’re willing to listen, learn, and deliver.” The Museum’s embrace of community extends to their leadership, which has created the Parkside Community Advisory Council. This council of nearly 30 neighborhood, political, and nonprofit leaders provide advice and feedback to the Museum.  As Ms. Wellenbach says, “children exist in an ecosystem that includes parents, caregivers, and educators and we appreciate the fact that we [need] to be a mirror to the community so that all children and their families would be welcome here.”

In June, the Zoo brought together a coalition of neighborhood leaders to discuss community activities and is looking at water conservation and vertical farm ideas to promote economic opportunity. However, as this incident shows, there is more room to include community members in decision making and outreach. “The video was a wake-up call for residents and the Zoo, I think,” says Juanita McFadden, a long-time East Parkside resident and a trustee for Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation (and full disclosure: this reporter’s mother). “I’m hoping that better communications with the Zoo will open up a dialogue filled with honesty and openness so that we can build a better kind of partnership for the good of our community.”

The Parkside Journal is committed to continuing online and print coverage of the changing demographics of our community and how the institutions of the neighborhood continue to adapt and support us as they grow.

 

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