A Performance of Freedom

June 11, 2020 | by Nathaniel Popkin

A lithograph from 1830 shows London Coffee House. a merchants’ exchange at the southwest corner of Front and Market Streets in the 1700s. A slave auction occurs outside the building. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

The policing of Black bodies in public space began almost as soon as there was a Philadelphia. A decade after the founding of the city on the ideal of toleration, the city’s governing council decided exactly what would not be tolerated and which people, precisely, would be harassed, cited, whipped, jailed, and sold into slavery.

The council passed a law, in 1693, prohibiting African people from gathering in the city’s public spaces for the performance of religious dance and music. They called them “tumultuous gatherings.”

Seven years later, in 1700, the council prohibited gatherings of more than four Black people.

1732, no Black dancing or singing in public on Sunday.

1741, no “disorder” produced by African people at Court House Square.

Painting John Caspar Wild of Pennsylvania Hall engulfed in flames. The abolitionist meeting hall was set on fire by a mob of white, pro-slavery rioters.| Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

The embryonic legal infrastructure of control aimed at a singular set of people evolved over centuries into code-enforced spatial segregation, with Black people living in distinct neighborhoods policed by mostly white men, who monitored their public behavior.

Control of Black bodies by police or, in some periods, by mobs acting with the tacit approval of police, is the American way, as Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik observes: “There are not two competing visions of America battling it out. There has always been one—under Trump, Obama or whoever is to come next. And its ideals have always been the same: to deny its Black population the human rights it extends to its white one, and whenever it is caught doing so graphically, brutally, undeniably on camera, convince itself that this is the exception and not the norm.”

A photograph of Octavius Valentine Catto. The civil rights activist was assassinated by Irish American Frank Kelly during riots on Election Day 1871. | Image: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

From the late 17th century we can trace this norm as a continuum in the life of Philadelphia to the present interrupted by periodic reform and attempts by African Americans to fight back. White mobs set on Black people and their property in 1829, 1834, 1838, 1842, and 1849, not in discrete episodes of violence but as the direct outcome of white intransience against Black advancement in the revolutionary and federal periods, a few decades before.

The 1850s produced young African Americans like Octavius V. Catto, Jacob White, and Caroline LeCount (and dozens more) who thought they would master the vicious stream of history and claim the city for their own. But Catto was assassinated by white vigilantes, some of whom were veterans of the mob violence of the 1840s, on Election Day, October 10, 1871, and with the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the coming of mass European migration, Black people found themselves segregated into certain neighborhoods, particular low-paying jobs, and underfunded schools.

This kind of social and economic control manifested spatially as thousands of African Americans came north to Philadelphia from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas and were squeezed into specific districts of the city, a process of ghettoization. The spatial segregation meant that Black people experienced broad freedom to develop their own street life, music, art, and commerce—away from white eyes. But the freedom inside meant white people would police the borders, quite notably in the summers of 1918 and 1919, when white men took violent offense at Black people moving onto white blocks and race war engulphed southwest Center City, Devil’s Pocket, and Grays Ferry.

In 1934, the Federal Housing Authority codified these borders through a system of redlining adapted by banks and insurance companies. Mid-20th century, the predominantly white police department, whose character was consequently shaped by Frank Rizzo, made Black men their target. The police were out to enforce order above all. “It did feel like there was an army whose job was to keep us under control,” author Lorene Cary says of her childhood in West Philadelphia, in the forthcoming documentary, American Experiment: The Struggle for Philadelphia, a film I’ve collaborated on as writer. (American Experiment is an adaptation of the television series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.)

A nonviolent student protest for equal rights became a brutal police riot on November 17, 1967. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

To overthrow the occupying army, Black leaders of the 1960s applied tactics of resistance—boycott, walk-out, sit-in, protest—developed first in the 18th century by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones and adapted in the 19th-century by Catto and his peers.

The streets of Philadelphia store the history of resistance, just as they do control. When today protestors—and police—step onto the street, sidewalks, and public spaces of the city, they enter this continuum. Their words and actions speak from history and speak to it, too. When Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna struck protesting student Evan Gorski on the head on June 1 he was enacting, with blunt force, the exact terror, one block away, committed by his predecessors, and ordered by Frank Rizzo, on November 17, 1967 against Philadelphia high school students marching to end the systemic racism of the School District of Philadelphia.

The history of terror performed by Bologna is why the removal of the statue of Rizzo from Municipal Services Building plaza the next night was imperative. And it is also why the protests of the last two weeks carry with them a kind of ecstatic energy, the defiant performance of freedom.

Graffiti in Center City on the morning of May 31 after a night of protest and civil unrest. | Photo: Michael Bixler

I noticed the defiant freedom particularly on Saturday, June 6, mid-way through what turned out to be about twelve hours of speaking and marching, dancing and singing across a Center City mostly free of cars (and so doubly liberated). I sat at the edge of Dilworth Plaza facing 15th Street. Police behind barricades rung City Hall and to the north, reinforced by members of the Pennsylvania National Guard, who blocked John F. Kennedy Boulevard and access to the MSB. And though they were the object of the protest, segregated as they were, they had ceded the street to the people.

For years before the George Floyd police brutality protests, political activists have been marching around this city and hundreds of others chanting, among other things, “Whose streets? Our streets.” But this time as a wail of anger, frustration, despair, resentment, and terminal indignation aimed at police and the systemic apparatus of racism in America, the chant simultaneously absorbs and explodes centuries of oppression and control. When the chant comes to define the reality of the street itself in real time, performance merging with the occupation of space, the door of public space blows open, inviting the tumult of human beings.

This feeling, so opposite as it is oppression, effectively gives the city back, without restraint, to its people, white and black, immigrant and non-immigrant, old and young. Sitting at the edge of Dilworth Plaza, I observed such a transformation. To the north, a protestor with a megaphone addressing a crowd near the MSB. To the west, a circle around Stephania Ergemlidze’s mobile basketball hoop, cheered games of one-on-one. Immediately in front of me, two or three small groups of people engaged in conversation. Someone wrote in chalk on the asphalt, Black Lives Matter. All this was in sight, but surrounded by dozens of other manifestations of freedom, Philadelphia suggesting to itself how it really ought to be.

55 years earlier, in May 1965, the lawyer and civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore had led daily marches around the ten-foot stone wall of Girard College, to demand the school open to Black students. Day after day, the young protestors inhabited the space along Girard Avenue. They carried signs. They sang and danced. They defied a curfew. Now, their defiance echoed in the beat of the drum on 15th Street, in the feet of people dancing. No one wanted to relinquish the street. As evening came and then dark, a deputy police commissioner told reporters the police would let the people stay.


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. Rennie says:

    So it’s time to change years of oppression. But we keep voting for the same thing. Time for #blexit

  2. Tony says:

    Excellent well researched history of systemic racism in the City of Brotherly Love!However, one aspect of segregation practices in the city that wasnt mentioned was the deliberate and racist redlining practices of the predominant religious institutions in Philadelphia!It was no coincidence that somehow there would be an all black street surrounded by an entirely white neighborhood!This practice was quite obvious in some south Philly neighborhoods east of Broad where I grew up!As a kid you didnt give it much thought but as you grew older you knew this just didnt happen on its own!Some racist practices are more subtle than others but still nonetheless harmful and unjust!

  3. tonya thames taylor says:

    Thank you. This reminds us that freedom is a constant struggle.

  4. William says:

    Thank you for such a moving and informative article that reveals deep systemic issues across time. Clearly we must open our minds and work together to break out of the loop we are in.

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