The Death of Walter Wallace Jr.

A Narrative Analysis

Yesterday, a 27-year-old black man was shot and killed by Philadelphia Police. The death of Walter Wallace Jr. has prompted heated disagreements about what actually occurred as well as significant riots/protests in the city.

To the left, the Philadelphia PD shot and killed a black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis. They didn’t use tasers or employ de-escalation techniques, but rather escalated the situation and murdered another black man.

To the right, Wallace was charging the police knife-in-hand. The officers exercised incredible restraint, and it was only after he chased them around the street were they forced to shoot him.


Here’s a brief summary of the confrontation:

In the video, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27 year old black man, was walking towards an officer who had his gun drawn. He turned and began walking towards another officer with his gun drawn. An officer then yelled at him to “put the knife down” and “back up.” Wallace’s mother was behind Wallace, grabbing at him, and he pulled away. The officer backed up and around a car, and Wallace followed him. The officers yelled at him to “put the knife down.” As Wallace turned the corner around the car and into the street, the officers shot multiple times until he fell to the ground. His mother ran screaming over to Wallace with her hands in the air as other people gathered.


Here’s a breakdown of the narratives:



In the first text (which I transcribed from the source footage), I’ve used red and blue to highlight the information that is more salient to either side.

If you’re on the right, information about Wallace approaching or pursuing the officers and information about the knife will stick out. And if you’re on the left, information about the officers’ guns being drawn and Wallace’s mother will stick out.

As an exercise, if you just take the highlighted information from one side, you will construct a sort of proto-narrative.

Right Highlights: was walking towards an officer…began walking towards another… “put the knife down”… “back up”…The officer backed up…Wallace followed him… “put the knife down.”

With only this information, who’s the bad guy? Sounds like Wallace was pursuing officers with a knife.

Left Highlights: who had his gun drawn…officer with his gun drawn…Wallace’s mother was behind Wallace…officers shot multiple times…his mother ran screaming over to Wallace with her hands in the air.

With only this information, it sounds like the officers murdered an innocent man in front of his mother.

And as these narratives evolve through transmission, variation, and omission via social media, we end up with two coherent yet entirely different accounts of what occurred.


Left Narratives

Today, the narratives on the left are focusing on this as a mental health crisis, emphasizing the fact that neither officer involved appeared to use any less-than-lethal tool like a taser or pepper spray. They were unwilling to de-escalate this situation, and instead decided to execute a troubled young black man in front of his mother.

Right Narratives

On the right today, people are emphasizing that Wallace had a knife and was actively pursuing the officers. They’re also focusing on the response to this shooting and the fact that Philadelphia became subject to destructive and violent riots.

That’s all for now.

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Further Reading

Fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. prompts heated overnight protests in West Philly - The Philadelphia Inquirer

Riot Erupts in Philadelphia After Black Male is Shot By Police While Charging at Them With a Knife - The Gateway Pundit

Philadelphia police fatally shoot Black man after yelling at him to drop knife in recorded incident - USA Today

Police Shot a Black Man 10 Times While His Mother Begged Them to De-Escalate - VICE


*A note on terminology: I used the phrase “the officers shot multiple times until he fell to the ground.” It was difficult for me to determine how to best neutrally describe what happened regarding the actual shooting. The officers both shot around 10 rounds each, and so Wallace may have been shot around 20 times. However, all these shots occurred in the time it took him to go from standing to the ground. If I were to say, “the officers shot him 20 times,” this seems to me to be implying the left’s narrative that they used way too much force. However, if I were to only say, “the officers shot him until he fell to the ground,” this doesn’t quite capture that the officers fired more than one or two rounds. And so I settled on “the officers shot multiple times until he fell to the ground.” However, I don’t think this is a perfectly neutral way to describe what happened—in fact, I think it sounds a little sympathetic to the right narrative. It’s not perfect, but I tried, and hopefully you can understand why I selected that phrase.