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In the summer of 2020, across the country, Americans took to the street in protest of Mr. George Floyd’s murder and the police killings of countless other Black people. In too many cases, police responded to protesters with excessive force and the very brutality that had led people to protest police in the first place. In the wake of these horrific displays of force, over 40 lawsuits were filed nationwide that challenged police conduct at protests. Smith v. City of Philadelphia, one of the lawsuits brought on behalf of residents and protesters in Philadelphia, was unique because the tragic underlying facts in that case involved not only an attack on protesters, but also a broader attack on residents and bystanders who happened to be in the area. As one of the first police misconduct lawsuits brought in the midst of a national reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the timing of the lawsuit also created the opportunity to reimagine the potential for litigation — not simply to seek police reform, but to further an abolitionist movement. In this article, we explore how impact litigators can pursue demands and visions for transformative and enduring change through what we term here as “abolitionist remedies.” In Part I, we provide historical context as to the long-standing pattern of police surveillance and excessive force against Black residents and activists in Philadelphia and in West Philadelphia specifically. In Part II, we provide an overview of the legal claims in the case, which included both excessive force and violations of the Equal Protection Clause. In Part III we discuss how we attempted to apply abolitionist principles to analyze which remedies to pursue in the context of the lawsuit. Finally, we offer a conclusion that recognizes some of the limitations of litigation for achieving non-reformist reforms.


police, over-policing, discrimination, abolitionist remedies, legal remedies, Black residents, ethics, racialized criminalization.

Publication Title

Fordham Urban Law Journal

Publication Citation

51 Fordham Urb. L.J. 635 (2024)

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