PHILADELPHIA — He spent a few minutes scouring the ground for the right object. It needed to fit in the palm of his hand, but it should be heavy, too.
Alex Rowlett-Little, 21, had planned to join the peaceful demonstrations that were sprouting in his neighborhood after video of the fatal police shooting of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. had ricocheted around the Internet. He left home around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night, repeating to himself the words, “They killed my brother.”
By the time he arrived, the peace had ended. Police had filled the streets wielding batons and pepper spray. People were throwing rocks, bottles and chunks of concrete.
Rowlett-Little paced back and forth in front of a line of officers holding up clear plastic riot shields. Those on bicycles were chasing people they identified with flashlights as object-throwers. Rowlett-Little held his brick behind his back in the palm of his right hand, feeling it over, searching for the right grip.
“I’m going to hit one of these bicycle cops when they jump out,” he said quietly to another man with a rock.
Rowlett-Little is not Wallace’s brother by birth. They were friends who met in South Philly, where Rowlett-Little grew up. Life took them both to the west side of town, where they ran into each other on the street three years ago. Wallace would die on the same block last week, the latest in a string of police killings that have inspired protests and riots across the country.
Rowlett-Little was on his way home after a shift canvassing voters for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden when he saw on social media the video of Wallace’s death.
“When I saw the video and saw who it was, it brought me to tears,” he said. “I’m, like, that’s bunk. They could’ve Tasered him. They could’ve shot him in the leg. Anything but that.”
Rowlett-Little studied auto mechanics in trade school, never seeing college as a realistic option. He said he was working part time as a mechanic before he was laid off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
This summer, he met a man named Elvis Santana, a former New York State Assembly candidate, who offered Rowlett-Little $18 an hour to go door-to-door and show Biden-leaning voters in Philadelphia how to vote early. He admits he doesn’t know much about politics, but he feels like the country is tearing itself apart.
And he’s determined one thing: He doesn’t trust President Trump.
“Stuff he say, how he carry himself. He’s not a good president,” Rowlett-Little said. “I don’t know what he’s doing for us. I think there will be more rioting if he’s president, more violence. People are fed up and tired.”
That’s how Rowlett-Little felt when he took to the streets Tuesday night. Tired.
His lifetime encounters with the police had been largely uneventful until earlier this year, he said, when the Philadelphia police arrested him with a handgun he’d obtained illegally to help protect his mother from a relative they said was abusing drugs. Rowlett-Little cooperated with the officers and is awaiting trial.
“I just pray and pray and pray and pray,” said Renitta Rowlett, 58, an out-of-work hairdresser, of her effort to keep her children safe from drugs, crime and police. “That’s how I get by, living with these boys in the city.”
If it had been her son facing police in the street, she would have grabbed him, she said.
“If they’re going to shoot him, they’re going to have to shoot me, too.”
Rowlett-Little has a similar attitude. His whole life, he’s seen what police are able to get away with in his community. “What would you have done?” he asked himself this summer after watching the video of George Floyd lying in a Minneapolis street as officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes. The hardest part for Rowlett-Little is seeing the people standing around doing nothing.
“I promise you, I’d have pushed that police off of him. And then I probably would’ve died,” he said. “He’s pleading for his life and people are just watching. That’s what hurt me. I’d have taken the charge, taken the consequences. I’m saving another man’s life.”
Rowlett-Little has been feeling like he has fewer and fewer options for work and improving his life, like the walls are closing in. In January, he learned a new word — “gentrification” — from an Eddie Murphy SNL parody of Mr. Rogers. Gentrification, Murphy explains, is “like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money, and then poof, all the Black people are gone.”
“I see that happening around here,” Rowlett-Little said. “White people moving in. I’m not racist, but where are we going to go? Sometimes it feels like they want to kill us all to make room.”
Sixty years ago, his grandmother left the small town of Norlina, N.C. — population 1,118 — to seek a new life away from the tobacco farm, according to Renitta Rowlett. His grandmother first moved to New York City before relocating with her daughters to Philadelphia in 1971. For years, they sent what little income the family could spare back to Norlina to help relatives make their own migration north to America’s urban centers.
Rowlett-Little was told over and over again by his mother and grandmother, who died in 2007, to be respectful of the police, to show them compassion and understanding so that they might give compassion and understanding in return. And then his friend was shot to death.
Wallace’s family says he was in the midst of a mental health crisis when officers arrived and found him holding a knife. Wallace hadn’t done what Rowlett-Little’s grandmother taught him to do, but did he deserve to die?
“He might have had mental issues, but he always had a smile on his face when I knew him,” Rowlett-Little said. “They didn’t need to do that.”
He thinks politicians and local leaders haven’t done enough to stop police violence in his community. Wallace was at least the fifth person killed by officers in Philadelphia this year, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, most of them Black. At least one other had known mental health issues.
“Who can we call on when stuff like this happens?” Rowlett-Little questioned. “We have to take it into our own hands, so we throw rocks. People is angry out here, angry and tired.”
He held the brick just the way he wanted it, just out of sight of the officers shining their flashlights in his direction. More than 30 officers would suffer minor injuries on Tuesday night.
For a moment, Rowlett-Little considered contributing to that number. Then he looked again at the officers, mostly White, and considered a question he hadn’t yet thought to ask. How many were racist? What are the chances he’d hit a cop who wasn’t racist and only fuel anger toward his community?
“I know there are some cool White people,” Rowlett-Little said. “I’m racist towards the people who are not with us.”
He let the rock fall to the sidewalk and went home to his mother in the paint-chipped townhouse in his trembling city.
Thinking through his decision the next day, Rowlett-Little had a simple explanation: “That’s not me.”