Hundreds of people, led by Philadelphia public defenders, marched from the National Constitution Center to Center City detention centers and courthouses on Monday afternoon, demanding criminal justice reform and an end to police brutality.
The march was part of a nationwide effort by public defenders, including those in California and the Midwest. Organizers said at least half of Philadelphia’s 250-plus defenders participated in the march, along with staff.
“Defenders do everything we’re protesting for, [but] we haven’t been able to organize ourselves because we’re doing the day-to-day work,” said Philadelphia Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey. “[It’s] time for us to make a showing for the very things our mission is working to cure — racial injustice, and [offer] hope for a better life for Black and brown communities entangled in the criminal justice system.”
Bradford-Grey arrived at the march shortly after it started, following a City Council budget hearing she attended earlier in the day. While Mayor Jim Kenney’s office recently announced that the mayor wants to increase the budget for the police department, it is planning to reduce the budget for the Defender Association of Philadelphia — a move Bradford-Grey said would only worsen systemic injustice.
“I requested that they not cut our budget by as much as they did,” Bradford-Grey said. “We offered a $2 million reduction but got a $3 million reduction. This means we are going to have less attorneys for more clients. It furthers the problem of injustice when you don’t have a lawyer that has enough time to represent [clients]. It leads to further wrongful convictions.”
As the protesters marched, they shouted “Get your knee off my neck,” “Let them go,” “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.” At each stop, they called attention to various injustices against people of color, juveniles and immigrants.
“It goes to the systematic injustice that has grown in our country for over 400 years. When we talk about police abuse of power, we talk about Amadou [Diallo], we talk about George Floyd, we talk about Trayvon Martin; we talk about everyone at CJC, we talk about everyone shot by the police, we talk about stop and frisk, we talk about the shutting down of schools, we talk about the criminalization of Black people all over the United States of America,” said Hassan Bennett, a former juvenile lifer, who currently works as a bail navigator for the defenders’ office. “We’re fighting here against systematic racism.”
Isis Misdary, assistant public defender, spoke at the Family Court and ICE detention center, denouncing their practices and their very existence.
“It costs $683 a day to incarcerate a child,” Misdary said. “At the defenders’ office, we have been fighting to bring Philadelphia kids home. When kids and youth in Philadelphia are adjudicated for criminal offenses, some of them go to placements that are three to four hours away from home. Everybody heard what happens at those placements. Glen Mills was shut down. We are calling for an end to youth incarceration in Pennsylvania. Kids do not belong in cages … We are calling to decriminalize Black and brown youth.”
At the ICE detention center, Misdary called attention to “Roger,” a Hispanic man who was held in pre-trial detention for two years.
“Roger came to the U.S. when he was 5 years old; Philly is the only home he has ever known. When he was in his mid-20s, he got into a motorcycle accident. His doctor prescribed him opioids and he developed a drug dependency and that was the driving factor [for] his contact with the criminal justice system,” Misdary said.
“He won his immigration case. He lost on appeal. The immigration system does not care if this is the only home you know. It does not care how long you’ve been here. It does not even care if you have legal presence. If you were born south of our border, in this system … it’s inherently racist.”