It has been nearly two weeks since eight individuals demonstrated outside the home of Ryan Pownall, the white, soon-to-be former Philadelphia police officer who on June 8 shot and killed David Jones, a 30-year-old black man who, at the time of his death, was without a weapon on his person and posed no threat to the lawman who pursued him with civilians in his cruiser. I was there as an activist and a journalist.
The city is still talking about the Aug. 24 nonviolent protest that occurred in front of Pownall’s residence — but not on his property. And due to Pownall’s impending termination of employment, the fatal shooting and the controversial direct actions that followed are unlikely to dissipate as topics of conversations.
For the foreseeable future, it seems, we will converse about the late Jones, the embattled Pownall, the brave activists who ventured onto Bridle Road, and the police union leader who dehumanized them for it. And how we talk about the incidents matters.
For starters, four Philadelphians were made victims June 8: Jones, who died that day, and the three civilians in the back of the police cruiser who had the expectation of safe travel to the Special Victims Unit, but were instead placed in harm’s way. Pownall drove right up to a then-parked-and-armed Jones, who sat atop his dirt bike, the type prohibited from being driven in the city.
Jones shouldn’t have had a gun. He shouldn’t have been on a dirt bike. And he shouldn’t be dead.
Detractors of the latter fact would argue that anyone who disobeys police while armed is culpable for their demise.
But if the eyewitness to this shooting — a Northeast Philadelphia father whom even the police commissioner said was credible — is to be believed, Jones didn’t resist arrest, because he was never placed under arrest, let alone Mirandized. It escalated from there.
Sitting atop an illegal dirt bike may be cause for a stop, but it certainly doesn’t warrant a frisk. Jones’ gun wasn’t visible nor being brandished, so what reasonable suspicion was Pownall acting from when he touched Jones and felt the gun — which dropped from the waistband during a later struggle?
Pownall violated more than departmental policies. He violated the trust of his passengers and, more broadly, the trust of the citizens he was sworn to serve and protect. In addition to killing an unarmed man, Pownall recklessly endangered minors. The evening protest at his home was warranted.
Some say it crossed the line. John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, called the majority black cohort of activists “rabid animals.” McNesby wrongly responded to black pain with degradation and hyperbole rather than with empathy and facts.
Pownall and his family were never threatened. Protesters did not attempt to brush past the boys in blue who stood guard at the officer’s home. True, the protest wasn’t permitted, but that appears to be a minor detail given the gravity of Pownall’s June actions.
Mayor Kenney said the protest didn’t move forward the effort of improving police-community relations. He’s right. And that wasn’t the goal. That protest was meant to communicate outrage and disapproval. It was designed to get people talking about the officer and his egregious actions.
Some said it went too far. I’d argue it didn’t go far enough.
Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris is an activist and has covered and participated in police-reform and anti-police-violence movements since 2014. He’s an award-winning journalist, online content producer, and professional drummer. He cohosts “Pushback,” a social-justice podcast produced and distributed by Philadelphia magazine and WURD Radio. Follow him on Twitter @floodthedrummer.