Protesters call for prison, police reform

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Hundreds gathered Sunday afternoon in front of Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount as Philadelphia entered its second full week of demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

The protesters called for criminal justice reform and the release of prisoners to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, in addition to decrying police brutality.

“Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re going to close the prisons and free them all,” they chanted, just outside the historic jail’s massive stone walls.

“We are part of a growing movement saying nobody should be in a prison cell,” said Jackson Kusiak, of the Free People Strike, a group that has been advocating for inmates to be freed during the pandemic.

Jackson Kusiak (right), of the Free People Strike, and others are demanding the release of elderly prisoners. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Kusiak and several others at the event have been on a hunger strike since May 28. They are demanding the release of elderly prisoners and want state authorities to expand criteria for who is eligible to be released under a process set up after the virus hit, among other requests.

Protest organizers compared the prisoners’ plight to a death sentence, and some said the prison system should be abolished entirely.

In city jails, one inmate has died from COVID-19 complications, and 421 have tested positive. On Friday, officials announced that they had finished testing every prisoner and found that 6 percent of asymptomatic inmates had contracted the virus.

Nine state prisoners have died, and 254 have been infected with the virus, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Mike Africa Jr., a MOVE member who was born in prison after his mother and father were sentenced to life for the killing of Police Officer James Ramp, related the current situation to the treatment of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

“Mumia is a victim of police violence,” said Africa, who spoke at the rally. “Here in the City of Philadelphia, you don’t get a clearer example.”

Abu-Jamal, in perhaps the city’s most infamous case, received the death penalty after a jury convicted him of fatally shooting Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981 in Center City. His sentence has since been downgraded to life-in-prison.

Mike Africa Jr., a MOVE member, talks to demonstrators in front of Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount on Sunday. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

He continues to contest his innocence, and Africa said Abu-Jamal was framed for the murder because he spoke out about injustice and MOVE. The crowd chanted “Free Mumia.”

Africa recounted how authorities 35 years ago dropped a bomb on the MOVE house in West Philadelphia, killing 11 people, including five children.

“This system does not employ the police to serve and protect anyone,” he said. “They brutalize the people and try to force them into submission.”

After the rally in Fairmount, the large group marched through the neighborhood, blocking streets and receiving support from neighbors and drivers.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

For the first time in a week, city leaders did not impose a curfew Sunday night. Only one person was arrested in connection to the ongoing unrest Saturday, police said, as thousands gathered peacefully on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The mural of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo near the Italian Market was painted over Sunday morning, days after his statue was removed from the steps of the Municipal Services Building.

Mural Arts, in a statement, said it will be working to engage neighbors in South Philadelphia about a new mural that better reflects the South 9th Street corridor.

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