Academic journal article Journalism History

Standing by Police Paralysis, Race, and the 1964 Philadelphia Riot

Academic journal article Journalism History

Standing by Police Paralysis, Race, and the 1964 Philadelphia Riot

Article excerpt

Although considerable scholarship has explored the riots of the 1960s as the culmination of tensions simmering throughout the tumultuous decade, this article examines Philadelphia's 1964 riot and the ways that local newspapers attempted to frame the violence. By urging Philadelphians to view the riot as the outcome of an ineffectual police department, which was ill-equipped to confront black "hoodlums, "journalists privileged frames of police paralysis and marginalization. The circulation of these two frames alone, however, cannot explain the eventual demise of the city's Police Advisory Board. This study argues that the imagery of police standing idly by while the streets of Philadelphia dissolved into chaos proved invaluable ammunition for opponents of the Board, who found in the news coverage further evidence of postwar liberalism's failure to protect the populace.

On the evening of Friday, August 28, 1964, Philadelphia succumbed to the wave of urban riots that had been sweeping cities along the East Coast during a long and hot summer.1 Violence broke out at the corner of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia after a black couple, Rush and Odessa Bradford, was confronted by two Philadelphia police officers, Patrolmen John Hoff and Robert Wells. Hoff, who was white, and Wells, who was black, had been called to the scene because the couple, allegedly engaged in a domestic dispute in their car, was blocking the flow of traffic at the busy intersection.2 Upon reaching the corner, the officers found Odessa Bradford holding her foot on the car's brake pedal. She proceeded to argue with Officer Wells, who pulled her out of the car by her wrists. Her removal should have been the end of the relatively minor disturbance, but as she was being put into the police wagon, a bystander emerged from the crowd and punched Hoff, causing passersby to enter the fray. After arresting Bradford and the bystander, who had punched his partner, Wells returned to the scene of the Bradfords' dispute to fìnd a storm of flying botdes and bricks being aimed at police and their wagons. The ensuing violence and looting lasted the remainder of the weekend as rumors spread throughout the neighborhood that a black woman had been beaten and killed by a white police officer. Despite the rumors being untrue, they stirred greater anger toward police. When the violence Anally ended, two were dead, 350 were wounded, and commercial establishments lining the Columbia Avenue thoroughfare suffered approximately $4 million of damage.3

Home to the highest unemployment rates in the city, poorest housing, and lowest income and educational levels, North Philadelphia was more than simply an early example of the explosiveness of the urban crisis within the existing narrative of the 1960s.4 Commonly referred to as "the Jungle," the predominantly African-American neighborhood was the site of 19 percent of the city's crime and only 9 percent of its population. The phrase "the Jungle" was used by "many policemen, . . . much of the white community, [and] even . . . some juveniles who live in the area," according to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Such usage signaled that in addition to being "a catalogue of social failure,"5 as die Bulletin reported, North Philadelphia also was discursively constructed in highly racialized, and racist, terms. The lexicon of descriptors conjured by a phrase such as "the Jungle" allowed for the demonization of the neighborhood and those who lived there. This casting of the neighborhood, set within the context of frequent charges of police brutality by community members, made North Philadelphia no stranger to strained relations with the Philadelphia Police Department.6 Urban League Executive Director Andrew Freeman dubbed North Philadelphia "a racial tinderbox" in early August 1964, waiting for a spark to ignite it.7 Only weeks later, the Bradfords' chance altercation provided the spark.

Riots such as those which broke out in Philadelphia in 1964, in Watts in Los Angeles one year later, and in Newark and Detroit in 1 967 have been cited by historians as the catalysts compelling federal attention to longstanding issues of racism and inequality and resulting in President Lyndon Johnson forming the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in 1967. …

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