Philly’s Already on Edge. Election Day Could Spark Total Chaos.

Sara Sheridan, William Bredderman
·7 min read
Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP
Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

PHILADELPHIA—On Monday, against the backdrop of a nation careening toward its most fraught election in living memory, and a stream of ominous chatter from Donald Trump about this city in particular, local cops fatally fired 14 shots at Walter Wallace, a 27-year-old, mentally ill Black man wielding a knife.

Ensuing protests played out in parallel with last-minute legal jockeying and frantic preparations for Nov. 3 in this most Democratic of towns, where Joe Biden needs to run up a massive margin to avoid a repeat of Trump’s shocking Pennsylvania win in 2016.

The video of Wallace’s killing burned across social media, and among its viewers was Philadelphia’s youngest Democratic ward leader, Anton Moore, himself a Black millennial. The 34-year-old activist, who addressed his party’s national convention in 2016, said the pain and frustration it evoked were almost enough to make him cancel an event on Tuesday to remind his neighbors of their last chance to apply for and fill out a mail-in ballot, even though he had already booked a DJ.

“But then I said to myself, ‘Why would I do that?’ We need people to go to the polls,” he told The Daily Beast, pointing to local measures on the ballot that would bar stop-and-frisk and establish a new police oversight commission. “We’ve got to keep pressing forward.”

After the party on Tuesday at 20th Street and Snyder Avenue, Moore joined thousands of other Philadelphians at a demonstration along 52nd Street—one of several that have wracked the city this week, and that have, at times, devolved into looting and violence by and against police. The city has seen 200 arrests since Monday and nearly 60 officers injured, with one still hospitalized.

The electoral situation in the state has been no less chaotic.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide before the election whether Pennsylvania could count mail-in ballots that arrive after 8 p.m. on Election Day, but left open the possibility of taking up the question again after the vote. The state has already decided to segregate ballots that come in before that deadline, hoping to head off a potential GOP lawsuit that could have all the absentee ballots tossed.

Democrats have disproportionately opted to vote early and by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps in part because of Trump’s baseless allegations that the system is rife with fraud. And no place in Pennsylvania has seen more people request mail-in ballots than Philadelphia, its biggest city: 436,627, according to the U.S. Elections Project. More than 100,000 have yet to be returned.

On Friday, Philadelphians learned they would have to wait for more than a final ruling on late ballots. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced that her department would not release the bodycam footage and 911 recordings from Wallace’s shooting until Nov. 4—citing the family’s wishes and the threat of unrest. In the meantime, Gov. Tom Wolf has deployed the National Guard to the city. Reservists and state troopers stationed outside of City Hall and the city’s Municipal Services Building. Both buildings are located in the city’s downtown area, and are popular gathering places for protesters and activists. They were where prominent scenes of mass protest, arrests, and chaos occurred this past summer during protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Experts, activists, and voters consulted by The Daily Beast fear that the events of the next seven days could throw this city, and the country as a whole, into chaos.

“We’re not talking about an Election Day—we’re talking about an Election Week,” said Professor Daniel Mallinson of Penn State Harrisburg, an expert on Keystone State politics. “If it comes down to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, we could be in for a wild ride.”

This isn’t just because a narrow margin in Pennsylvania could trigger a Supreme Court fight over absentees. The state legislature declined to pass laws allowing poll workers to remove the millions of mail-in ballots from their envelopes until the morning of Election Day. Hundreds of thousands of such votes in Philadelphia will not get fully counted and added to official tallies for days.

This sets up what Mallinson described as a frightening possibility: that Trump might declare victory in Pennsylvania, and thus nationwide, based on an early lead among in-person voters. This could touch off protests, he said, with a repeat of the sort of property damage witnessed earlier this week.

With the state’s lax gun laws, and further inflammatory rhetoric from the president, such a scenario could produce scenes like those witnessed in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the streets of Philadelphia, Mallinson suggested. In a city where police have recently been scrutinized for their ties to the far-right, the prospect is a combustible one at best.

“We’re in a very emotionally hot environment,” said Mallinson. “I think that there’s always the possibility of violence when you have these mass protests, especially with the introduction of people carrying firearms at protests.”

The possibility of upheaval seemed also to haunt Philadelphia’s Democratic Party boss, former Rep. Bob Brady, who seemed otherwise confident in his city’s ability to fend off legal challenges to its mail-in ballots.

“There’ll be anarchy if this guy tries to steal the election—not only in Philadelphia, but in the United States of America,” Brady told The Daily Beast, though he quickly dialed the comment back. “There’s not going to be rioting or nothing, but there’ll sure be an outcry.”

Philadelphians interviewed were divided on whether the latest protests would impact turnout—and just how likely the city was to veer off the deep end. Several anticipated outrage over the Wallace killing would boost support for Biden. Others expected little or no impact at all, noting the city managed the June primary amid the roiling protests over George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.

“It was something we were very concerned about,” said Democratic election lawyer Adam Bonin, noting that the primary occurred amid a citywide curfew like the one in effect until Saturday morning. “It may motivate some more voters to recognize all that’s at stake in this election.”

But at least one resident feared that tension would deter people from the polls.

“This makes it easy for some to say, ‘I’m not voting,’” said Cheryel-Lynn Sumpter, a West Philadelphia resident who witnessed protests from her front porch both this summer and this past week.

For her part, Sumpter plans on voting on Election Day—no matter what.

Moore, meanwhile, remained optimistic about the process. He has another event, with pizza and a different turntablist, scheduled for Sunday. There, he’ll encourage voters in his South Philadelphia neighborhood to leave their mail-in ballots off at a city dropbox rather than risk putting them in the mail. And he’s convinced Wallace’s killing has galvanized and motivated his constituents to participate.

Still, he has his demands if his party triumphs.

“If this election is over and Democrats win, they have to show something for African-American men,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’re part of the system. It’s not working for us.”

Others in the streets this week found it hard to focus on policy changes or programs when their city was facing the potential for so much mayhem.

“Either way, no matter who wins, there will be riots on Election Day,” said Zsa Zsa Dali, a biochemist and activist who lives in North Philadelphia and cast an absentee ballot. “So we’ve really just been thinking, ‘Be ready so you don’t have to get ready.’”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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