In the wake of the death of George Floyd, there has been a massive demand to end systemic racism in the country in all its forms. South Philadelphia has become a prime example of what that means in the last few days.

Photo by George Solis

The History of Marconi Plaza

In South Philadelphia, nestled between some trees on Broad Street near Oregon Avenue, lies Marconi Plaza. Named after the famous Italian-American inventor, the park is home to a statue to both the parks namesake and Christopher Columbus. The statue is visible from the street, but only if you really look for it. The statue of Columbus, created in 1876, was moved there in 1920 after sitting in Fairmount Park 6 miles away, and the statue is considered to be the first in the nation dedicated to Columbus and Italian-American’s in the country

On Saturday, June 13, 2020, after 2 weeks of protests in Philadelphia and 3 weeks across the nation, statues of people with racist histories were coming down. One prime example was that of Columbus. Around the country, after decades of demands, people were tearing down his statues left-and-right. In Philadelphia the statue of Mayor and Italian-American Frank Rizzo was removed after years of protests due to his history of racism against black American’s. 

While there were statues removed around America, and there was a call to remove the Columbus monument that was erected in 1992 at Delaware Ave and Dock Street, no one really knew or cared about the statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza. That part of South Philadelphia was a classic working-class Italian-American neighborhood that few people visited.

On this day, South Philly became scared, worried that the protestors would topple their statue next. Rumors spread across social media that ANTIFA (Anti-Facists) would descend on South Philadelphia and topple their Columbus statue, and maybe worse! White men with baseball bats, golf clubs, knives, and guns went out to “protect” the statue from the threat. To them, the threat was anyone that they didn’t know, and anyone who looked too “liberal” to them. 

Their first victim was a reporter with the outlet Unicorn Riot who came to film what was happening on the scene. Unicorn Riot is a left-wing news outlet that covers far-right activities such as people with weapons protecting a statue. As he recorded them he asked about the weapons and why they were out there. Soon the group of about 20 men started to surround him. “Why are you shaking?,” asked one of the men wearing a gray stained Eagles t-shirt. “Look at you, you’re shaking like a leaf!” A man in a red t-shirt and a black-and-yellow baseball bat went up to him and tried to grab his camera. More men tried to get the camera from him. A larger man with a larger stomach and a red t-shirt, took his bike and dragged it to the curb. Immediately afterwards another man in a gray shirt took a knife and sliced his tires.

Police Capt. Louis Campione of the Philadelphia 1st District came over and told the reporter, “I’m going to give you three warnings. You need to stop recording and leave.” If he didn’t, he would be charged with “inciting a riot.”

In that moment, a number of things were made clear: The police were not there to enforce the law and protect and serve. They were there to protect the armed mob with weapons. Other people would go down just to see what was happening and they would be intimidated in front of police officers who would do nothing.

This was the start of the Marconi Plaza Autonomous Zone (MPAZ).

MPAZ borders were set-up by the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) on Sunday, June 14. The barricades were put in front of the Columbus Statue to help separate the crowd of people “protecting” the statue and those opposed to it. Residents of MPAZ would regularly walk around these borders and attack American citizens while the PPD, in many cases, simply watched. MPAZ warriors, known as the “Gravy Seals” and now no longer openly carrying weapons, would surround people they even suspected were outsiders and start yelling at them, telling them to leave.

Soon the citizens of MPAZ were on the move. They marched to 13th Street to where they believed was Mayor Kenney’s girlfriend’s house while he was there. The mob of people, armed with Trump MAGA flags and gear and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, stood there and chanted and taunted him as nearly 20 SWAT officers without riot shields stood nearby and watched. The crowd, with fever, would shout, “Back the Blue” and “Fund the Police” in joy. After 30 minutes the crowd retreated back to MPAZ where they continued to intimidate, harass, and assault people.

The reporter from Unicorn Riot had returned and entered MPAZ to film once more. Eventually he moved to the median on Broad Street, only to then have a group of 20 men pounce at him at once and take him down. The PPD largely looked on with one officer finally trying to stop the assault. 

Throughout Sunday night the pattern would repeat itself: random gangs of men would surround someone, in some cases attack them, and the police would largely stay uninvolved. 

By Monday MPAZ had their armed patrols back. A perimeter was created to protect the area. Cars would patrol the area and stop people who they thought didn’t belong. Even those outside the borders of this lawless area would have the citizens of MPAZ cross their borders in order to harass passer-bys. The PPD would rarely get involved more than to try and attempt to stop a scuffle.

There is now talk of Mayor Kenney removing the statue because of the work of MPAZ and the “Gravy Seals”. The statue that no one cared about and didn’t want to be removed became a victim because of the very people who tried to protect it.

This comes in stark contrast to how protestors for Black Lives Matter were met in Late May and Early June. On June 1st, 2020, protestors were permitted to enter I-676, also known as the Vine Street Expressway, in a largely peaceful protest. While they were there and under a bridge, Pennsylvania State Police officers shot them with tear gas and rubber bullets arresting dozens of the hundreds of protestors who were there. Over the next 6 days there were countless videos showing protestors in Center City, Philadelphia not engaging in any violence only to be attack and beaten by police officers

PPD officer Joe Bologna was seen beating a protestor on the top of the head with a metal baton for what appears to be no reason, resulting in the person needing 10 staples in their head. He was fired from his job and charged with assault. As he surrendered, members of the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) and other police supporters applauded him.

The PPD has made it clear who they support.

What Does This Show

I write this mere hours before a massive protest is about to take place in South Philadelphia in MPAZ. The protest is in support of PPD Capt. Louis Campione who was transferred to the Northeast PPD after 10 years in South Philadelphia. Residents decided to gather on Tuesday, June 16th at 4:30 PM at MPAZ to show support. Counter-protestors, largely sick and tired of the occupation and assaults from the Gravy Seals, plan to show up as well.

Mayor Kenney has released a statement saying that “vigilantism will not be tolerated,” and has directed an investigation into the 1st Police District due to the initial incident. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has said she will also look into the police response to the protests. It’s important to note that these actions took place on Sunday morning and that, despite the outcry and increased police presence, the citizens of MPAZ and the Gravy Seals still engaged in this terrible behavior and the police allowed a good chunk of it to happen.

The reality is that this is no longer about the statue. Even the people there to “defend” the statue realize it’s no longer about that. As Ronnie Tini, a South Philly resident who live streamed for 5 hours the event of Sunday said himself, “We don’t give a fuck about this statue! This statue is going to be moved, and I’ve made my peace with that. This is about protecting our neighborhood!”

This event is highlighting a number of things. That there are a bunch of people in South Philadelphia who are afraid of anyone and everyone who doesn’t look like them from coming to the area. It exposed that the 1st Police Department is going to look out for the people they know and not do their jobs and protect everyone. It exposed that the racism in South Philly is so deeply ingrained that a bunch of people decided they had to arm themselves because they were worried that “THEY” were going to come and topple over their statue.

When we talk about Systemic Racism, it isn’t as easy as pointing to police reform and statistics on crime. It’s larger than that. The events in South Philly and MPAZ show that Systemic Racism also involves how we treat each other and the world around us, and how the news and rumors can feed into hatred and divisiveness.