In 2018, one thing became clear: What is news in Philadelphia’s African-American community is not just news locally but it resonates around the world.
In the era of #MeToo and heightened attention paid to the harassment of women, no one else fell to earth harder than North Philadelphia’s Bill Cosby. With criminal justice reform in the national spotlight, imprisoned Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill became an internationally recognized figure. And as the police were called on African Americans around the country for doing everyday things, an incident in a downtown Starbucks involving a pair of young Black men garnered national and international attention.
These are just some of the local stories involving African Americans that resonated both far and wide. Here is the list of the Top 10 local stories of 2018 as determined by the editors of the Philadelphia Tribune:
Changes to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office
District Attorney Larry Kranser’s first year as the city’s top cop brought progressive reforms to the city’s criminal justice system.
Kranser unveiled a new policy directing prosecutors to take into account the financial cost to taxpayers during their sentencing recommendations, and he noted that incarcerating an individual costs an estimated $42,000 annually. Aimed at reducing mass incarceration, Krasner said in March that policy would “bring some balance back to sentencing.”
Krasner ended cash bail for more than two dozen low-level offenses, including possession with the intent to distribute 5 pounds or less of marijuana, prostitution and resisting arrest.
Krasner also teamed up with Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, the Defender Association of Philadelphia and other community organizations to seek reforms to end the use of cash ball altogether.
For the first time in more than two decades, the district attorney’s office filed a murder charge in connection with a fatal police shooting in the city. Ex-officer Ryan Pownall, who is white, was charged with criminal homicide and other charges related to the 2017 fatal shooting of David Jones, who was Black.
Kranser signed off on terminating a data-sharing agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Krasner’s support was necessary to end the agreement, which also required the approval of Mayor Jim Kenney. The agreement sparked weeks of protests and encampments outside City Hall.
The district attorney’s office now no longer opposes requests to expunge or redact criminal histories in limited circumstances, such as if someone is found not guilty or where a case had been dropped. When Krasner rolled out the new policy in May, he said it would help “erase that record of racism” and history of “racist and disproportionate police enforcement, which for decades had been heavily focused on poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods.
As a result of changes Krasner has made to the DA’s office, he has been featured in national publications, such as The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Atlantic.
Eagles win the Super Bowl
Maybe the most memorable season in Philadelphia sports history began ordinarily enough in 2017, with the Eagles opening the season splitting a pair of road games at Washington and Kansas City to go 1-1.
Then, the magic came out of nowhere. With second-year quarterback Carson Wentz playing at a higher level than anyone expected and second-year coach Doug Pederson looking like a play-calling genius, the Eagles, who finished dead last in the NFC East in 2016, ran off 10 straight wins to improve to 11-1 and establish themselves as the best team in the NFL.
However, what had been a dream looked to be transformed into a nightmare when Wentz was lost with a season-ending knee injury in early December 2017 in a victory over the Los Angeles Rams that earned the Eagles their first division title since 2013.
The air seemed to go out of the balloon as journeyman Nick Foles, who began his career with the Eagles in 2012 but had bounced around the league to other teams, stepped in from his backup role for the final three games of the regular season, which ended with the Eagles losing their final game 6-0 to the hated Dallas Cowboys.
Panic engulfed the city, and there was little hope that Foles could pick up where Wentz left off. But Foles shined in the postseason, leading the Eagles to wins over Atlanta, Minnesota and eventually the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII, giving the franchise and the city their first Super victory.
The Birds have struggled in 2018. However, as of Week 15, the Eagles were still in the hunt for a possible playoff berth.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two Black men, were arrested at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce Streets in April after a white store manager called the police on them for not buying anything. A video of the arrests of the two 20-something men by a patron in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood café set off protests against Starbucks, boycotts, charges of racism, and an apology tour by the company’s top brass.
Nelson and Robinson were at the Starbucks waiting for a business partner. Nelson asked to use the bathroom, but was denied because he wasn’t a paying customer. Soon after, the store manager called the police on them because they refused to buy something or leave.
After initially standing behind his officers for the arrest, Police Commissioner Richard Ross flipped and apologized.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson arrived in Philadelphia to do damage control with other corporate leaders. Johnson apologized for the arrests and called them reprehensible.
But that did not prevent protesters from swarming the store after the arrests.
Nelson and Robinson eventually reached a deal with the city for a symbolic $1 each and a promise to set up a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. They also reached a financial settlement with Starbucks for an undisclosed amount.
In addition, the Seattle-based company closed down more than 8,000 of its stores for half a day for anti-bias training.
Meek Mill released from prison
Rapper Meek Mill, also known as Rihmeek Williams, in and out of jail for more than a decade, was sentenced in late 2017 to two to four years in prison by Judge Genece Brinkley for violating probation, including a failed drug test and violating travel restrictions for traveling outside the city.
The lengthy sentence was viewed as extreme by many, and Mill soon became an international symbol of sentencing overreach by the judicial system, which is seen by many as being overly punitive in its treatment of young Black men such as Mill.
His incarceration at the State Correctional Institution at Chester brought any number of celebrity visitors to his prison cell, from Philadelphia 76ers such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, North Philadelphia comedian Kevin Hart. Even Rapper Jay-Z penned an op-ed for The New York Times citing the severity of the sentence. Additionally, there were death threats directed at Brinkley.
The rapper’s case stayed in the news, and seemingly whenever there was a hearing on the case downtown at the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, the streets of Philadelphia near City Hall were packed with supporters.
Finally, in June, Mill was released on probation and whisked away in a waiting helicopter by Philadelphia 76ers part owner Michael Rubin to a courtside seat at a game. He has since released a new album (Championships) that went to the top of charts and has been a regular on cable news advocating for criminal justice reform.
Bill Cosby sent to prison
Legendary actor and comedian Bill Cosby began 2018 a free man.
The North Philadelphia native, accused of drugging and sexually assaulting former Temple basketball coach Andrea Constand in his home in 2004, had seen his first sexual assault trial in 2017 end in mistrial after jurors remained deadlocked following six days of deliberation.
But the 2018 retrial would not go well for him.
The retrial began in April, and offered an interesting twist from the first as the the judge permitted five other accusers — only Constand took the stand in the first — to testify about how Cosby allegedly attacked them the same way he attacked Constand.
The jury found Cosby guilty of three counts of assaulting Constand: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant, felonies each punishable by up to 10 years.
Cosby was sentenced in September to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Constand. He was led away handcuffed after the judge denied a request that the entertainer, now 81, remain free on bail while he pursues a likely appeal.
He is now inmate No. NN7687 at the State Correctional Institution — Phoenix in Collegeville.
The City of Philadelphia regains control of its schools
After nearly two decades, the City of Philadelphia regained control of the School District of Philadelphia in July.
The School Reform Commission, which had been established in 2001 to manage the school district, voted to disband effective June 30 and Mayor Jim Kenney selected nine people to lead the new Board of Education.
Organizations, including Our City Our Schools, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — along with education advocates, parents and teachers — rejoiced at the announcement.
The current Board of Education includes Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson and Chris McGinley, who had served on the SRC. Other members include Vicechairman Wayne Walker, Julie Danzy, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix Lopez, Lee Huang, Maria McColgan and Angela McIver. So far, City Council members seem pleased.
The state took over the school district after it had recurring deficits in its budget, trouble paying staff and vendors, and low student test scores. The governor appointed three commissioners and the mayor appointed two to manage the school district.
The Board of Education is a little different from the SRC in terms of how it runs. There are now four committees that meet throughout the month, including the Finance and Facilities Committee, Student Achievement and Support Committee, Policy and District Partnerships Committee and Community Engagement Committee. The meetings are public.
Michael White arrested
The alleged fatal stabbing of Sean Schellenger, who was white, by 21-year-old Michael White, who is Black, in July has become a high-profile case that is testing the progressive policies of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Office.
White was working as a bicycle courier on that summer night when he came upon Schellenger and a driver involved in a traffic dispute on Chancellor Street at 17th Street. Schellenger’s blood alcohol level was 0.199 at the time, and there were traces of cocaine in his system.
Schellenger, who was with two other friends, got into a verbal dispute with White that turned physical, and led to White allegedly fatally stabbing Schellenger. White claimed self-defense and alleged Schellenger said “I’ll beat the Black off you” before the fatal stabbing.
Krasner’s office initially charged White with murder, which meant he could not be released on bail. The DA’s office then downgraded the charges to voluntary manslaughter and third-degree murder, and White posted bail and left jail over the protestations of Schellenger’s family. Schellenger’s family has started an online petition in an attempt to convince Krasner to reverse course.
The case continues to wind its way through the courts.
Philadelphia police officer is charged with murder for shooting Black man
A little more than a year after then-Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall shot and killed David Jones, a Black man, Pownall was charged with murder.
On Sept. 4, Pownall became the first police officer in Philadelphia to be charged with murder in more than two decades.
The shooting occurred on June 8, 2017. Pownall, who was transporting a father and two children to the Special Victims Unit for an interview, spotted David Jones riding a dirt bike near Whitaker and Hunting Park avenues. Pownall stopped Jones, frisked him and felt a gun. A struggle ensued and Jones tried to run away. Pownall attempted to shoot him, but his gun jammed. He unjammed it and fired off three shots, two of which struck Jones, 30, in the back and killed him.
The summer of 2017 was filled with protests by activists like Asa Kahlif, now running for council-at-large in 2019, and others demanding Pownall be fired. The rhetoric both pro and con reached incredible levels — people even protested in front of Pownall’s home — prompting Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby to go as far as calling them “animals.”
Following the completion of a three-months-long investigation, Police Commissioner Richard Ross suspended Pownall and fired him in September of 2017. The district attorney filed charges and arraigned Pownall a year later.
Originally facing a charge of first degree murder and being held without bail, the charge was reduced in October to third-degree murder and Pownall was released on bail. He currently is awaiting trial.
The ongoing battle of Temple’s future stadium
The saga over whether Temple University will build a football stadium on its campus in North Philadelphia is an ongoing battle.
University administrators want to build the $130 million stadium and classroom complex would take up the blocks encompassed by Broad Street, Norris Street, 16th Street and Montgomery Street. It would seat about 35,000 fans.
But some people who live in the community argue that a new stadium would have negative impact on a community already struggling with poverty and gentrification. Opponents also worry about traffic congestion, parking, trash and noise.
The Stadium Stompers, a group of residents and students opposed to the stadium, have held several protests around the issue.
“It’s like putting a whale inside of a goldfish bowl,” Kenneth Johnson, of the Stadium Stompers, previously told the Tribune.
The Philadelphia NAACP has suggested that Temple build its stadium in Rittenhouse Square, which is highly unlikely.
“We’ve been listening to neighbors, we’ve been listening to all people,” Temple President Richard M. Englert told the Tribune in 2017. “A multi-purpose facility would include a stadium, but it would include classrooms. We’d like to put concussion research right there and it would include retail space that would actually front Broad Street.”
Combating the opioid crisis
The City of Philadelphia embarked on a new approach to the opioid epidemic that has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years.
The Philadelphia Resilience Project focuses on clearing major encampments, reducing criminal activity, reducing the number of unsheltered individuals, cleaning up trash and litter, reducing overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases, increasing treatment options and mobilizing community response.
More than 500 people suffered from drug overdoses in 2018, according to city officials, and as of the end of August, 46 injection drug users were diagnosed with HIV.
Blacks accounted for 248 overdose deaths in 2017.
Officials already have cleared several encampments in Kensington. They plan to shut down the Emerald Street encampment by Jan. 15.
City leaders hope to keep the encampment sites cleared in 2019, develop drug and alcohol first aid training for the community, create and strengthen safe mass transit corridors, and strengthen existing routes for travel to and from community schools.