‘We will bounce back,’ says Philadelphia pastor as protests grip swing state

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Racial tensions are high in Philadelphia after police fatally shot a black man earlier this week, sparking violent protests in a state that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden see as crucial to their path to victory in next week's presidential election.

In a tumultuous political season marked by a pandemic and racial tension, the shooting of Wallace Walter Junior on Monday was like a spark that lit the fire, just days out from the presidential election.

The 27-year-old was shot and killed in West Philadelphia by two officers who were responding to reports of a person with a knife.

The shooting triggered looting and protests as well as a city-imposed curfew and on Friday, Pennsylvania national guards were dispatched to quell any further unrest.

The unrest in the city comes on the back of nationwide demonstrations demanding justice after the police killing of George Floyd on 26 May, which sparked a national reckoning on race.

Allegations of police brutality

“What we witnessed on Monday was not the first time,” says Reverend Dr. J. Henry Buck Junior, a pastor at Grace Baptist Church, north of where the shooting took place.

“This goes all the way back to what I would consider to be the time of lynching, to the time where people of color were persecuted,” he told RFI, blaming Wallace’s death on systemic racism.

Police said Wallace refused to put down his knife when requested and was shot.

A lawyer for Wallace’s family said he was bipolar and the call to emergency services was for an ambulance.

His family argued he was having a nervous breakdown and have questioned why police did not have Tasers or other non-lethal means to detain him. City officials say an investigation is underway.

Racism 'more arrogant'

“We talked about this watershed moment, all of that’s good language but we are still dealing with racism,” says Reverend Junior, a southerner from Mississippi, who grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line, delineating free and enslaved states.

“I would say now it (racism) has become more arrogant, much more in your face,” he said, pointing to President Donald Trump’s message to the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by’, seen as an endorsement for the violent, far right group.

Trump, who is behind Joe Biden in the polls in Pennsylvania, has sought to portray himself as the defender of law and order, blaming Democrats for the “rioting” in Philadelphia -- the state’s largest city-- to appeal to moderate and suburban voters, put off by the violence.

His Democratic challenger by contrast said he would work to address the spate of police shootings and allegations of misconduct, but condemned the looting as “not helping”.

Courting Pennsylvania

The shooting has come at a time when both presidential candidates are barnstorming Pennsylvania in the last days of the campaign in an attempt to capture this key swing state. Trump secured victory here by a mere 44,000 votes in 2016, clearing his path to the White House.

The road may be more difficult this time round.

“Looking at the history of both candidates, I must say that I am disappointed,” admits Reverend Junior.

“To see Joe Biden's record prior to and dealing with the mass incarceration problem, I am struggling with that,” he says of the former vice president’s controversial 1994 crime bill that led to offenders -- mostly black Americans--being put behind bars for lengthy sentences in a tough war on drugs.

“Presently, where we are right now, the current or the incumbent is not making a good case. But I do believe that the better candidate will be the former Vice President Joe Biden,” he said.

Evangelical support

Not all Christians agree. Trump still wields support among faithful believers convinced he has been “chosen by God.”

“I think that’s very dangerous,” warns Reverend Junior, disputing the assumption that Trump was sent to fulfil a Messianic prophecy.

“I think that Christians are split down the middle. I do think there are evangelicals who are very supportive of him,” notably for his conservative takeover of the courts, such as the recent appointment of right-leaning judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

“But then there are other Christians who are not so supportive of his politics. We see a kind of mockery of who we are and what we are. And we believe that Donald Trump is not being authentic in his role in caring for the nation,” he comments.

Hope of unity

However, Reverend Junior believes that Christians, like the rest of the nation, can still come together.

“I think that there's going to be healing. I think there's going to be a uniting in which people are going to have a sense of compassion, to draw back together,” he says, drawing strength from America’s past.

“We know how to bounce back. We’ve bounced back from wars and oppressive policies. When you look at even now, I think that we will bounce back from this particular dilemma,” he said.