Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
Beaten and Terrified, I Use My Vote to Change a Brutal System
By Justin Pita
TRIGGER WARNING: Police Violence
One moment in time, one decision, or one instance can change your life for better or for worse, forever. Just after my 21st birthday, during the week of the “historic” 2020 election, I was out protesting the death of a young man—a son, a father, and a Philadelphian, Walter Wallace Jr. His family had called 911, saying clearly that he was experiencing mental health distress. Two police officers showed up to find a man holding a knife, and within minutes each cop had fired at least seven rounds, killing Wallace in front of his family.
On the second night of protests, hundreds of people, young and old, took to the streets, demanding accountability from the officers who—like countless American police throughout the years—had murdered one of our own, despite the oaths they had taken to protect all citizens. And so there I was, marching alongside hundreds of protestors who were eager, like me, to demand justice and ultimately see the abolition of a cruel and violent system that has targeted and damaged so many of our communities.
I did not know it then, but I would soon find myself in danger, and for the first time in a long time, I would have to consider my life might be taken that night.
I was attempting to assist a young lady who was being beaten and maced on the ground by police this night. As I attempted to pick her up, I could feel the cold and brutal sting of more hits on the back of my own head.
A few seconds later, the blunt force of the batons on my head, back, and arms knocked me down. I turned to see that the woman I had attempted to help (who seemed to be about my age or younger), was no longer moving. I was forced to leave this scene as the extent of my injuries and the pain had convinced me that I was hurt badly and that my arm could be broken. And so, I left this traumatic scene questioning: Had I done everything in my power?
In the next five minutes, as I was retreating with other protesters, the group of officers continued to target and attack me three different times. We were complying with their orders; we were not fighting or resisting. As I left the area, despite my compliance, an officer rushed over to push me with his baton. He succeeded in hitting and pushing me several times. Finally, I yelled at him: "Why are you still hitting me even though I’m backing up?"
I posed no threat to this police officer armored in full riot gear. And as he continued to strike me, I put my arms up to block his baton. He used the opportunity to charge at me. Three or four other officers joined in, and as they pinned me down, one of the officers had his foot on my neck as the remaining officers continued to baton my head and the rest of my body. After being pinned for a few moments, not only was I unable to move my hands to my back to let them detain me, but I was continuously beaten as I attempted to do so.
I did not expect to be beaten as I had been during the series of events that night, but was beaten recklessly anyway. At a certain point, as I was on the ground, I thought that I could die due to the continuous blows to my skull. No person should ever have to undergo this kind of beating at any time. This level of violence in what amounts to the police occupation of West Philly should be punished, and I hope that for the sake of the community’s safety, these violent and brutal tactics that the Philadelphia Police Department uses will some day be forbidden. Students and West Philly citizens are met with violence far too frequently, and despite protests, no change has come.
The events that transpired could have been worse, and I acknowledge that so many others have endured more violent attacks. But yet, there is no justification for what the police did, and even if I or any other person were to have done something wrong, or illegal, nothing can justify their brutality.
These violent police attacks and abuse of power must have consequences. And while history tells me they don’t, I can only trust that some justice will come out of the recent recognition of rampant police brutality throughout America. My own professional career will be dedicated to prosecuting not only the officers who assaulted me, but the system that produces such behavior. I hope to pursue a path in criminal defense law, to release as many innocent people as possible—those who have been abused and brutalized by the very system that claims to "protect" them. Ending police violence is not just about removing a few bad apples. . . it’s about deconstructing the racist institutions that have enforced the targeting and brutality against Black and Latinx communities.
I voted this past election, knowing that the better world I imagine would not be made overnight, but I voted in hopes that my decision would leave a ripple effect on the possibilities for our future, and I can only hope that a safer world will eventually be the result. My vote was not for the next president . . . it was a vote for the improvement and empowerment of my own community, and the many other communities who continue to endure this violence. It’s up to us to be the change we wish to see, and we must use our most important tool—our voice—as a means to create this change.
Justin Pita is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Sociology and Urban Studies. He is originally from Chicago and is committed to the abolition of the police state and in making education, resources, and opportunities more accessible for historically marginalized communities.