Why Philly Protesters Went Back to the Place They Were Tear-Gassed

A protester walks near smoke after tear gas was dispersed during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Elle Meyers

July 6, 2020

During Sunday’s demonstration, protesters called for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to resign.

Over the weekend, protesters marched down a stretch of highway in Philadelphia where police last month used tear gas, pepper spray, and bean bags during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Footage obtained by local news outlets showed police firing tear gas at protesters trapped on I-676 on June 1. The demonstrators were cornered on the interstate by SWAT team officers on both sides, making it impossible for them to retreat to an on-ramp. The incident drew nationwide attention, at least one high-ranking commander took a voluntary demotion, and the police commissioner announced a moratorium on the use of tear gas in most situations. 

More than a month later, a group of more than 200 people marched from City Hall to the Vine Street Expressway on Sunday afternoon to decry the city’s handling of recent protests. In late May, police used violent tactics to subdue protesters in West Philadelphia, including throwing tear gas canisters from both ends of one street blanketing the block, according to WHYY

“That’s completely unfair, and if we leave things like that unchecked, the police department will only get more and more bold against the people in the city,” Kayla Watkins told WHYY. Watkins attended the protest Sunday, which was organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Watkins went on to note that demonstrations for different causes have received very different responses from police. For instance, groups protesting against the COVID-19 shutdown were treated more peacefully by officers, she said.

“For some reason, when we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they have to bring out the counterterrorism unit, they have to bring out rubber bullets, they have to bring out tear gas,” said Watkins. “I don’t understand when the protesters are majority white, why they are able to find peaceful solutions to deal with people then.”

During the demonstration on Sunday, protesters called for city leaders to step down, including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. 

https://www.facebook.com/pslphilly/photos/a.258233787682056/1509182229253866/

Following the June demonstration, Outlaw and Kenney initially said that tear-gassing the protesters was justified and cited reports that protesters had trapped a state trooper in his vehicle. Outlaw also claimed that demonstrators rocked the car back and forth with the trooper inside.

However, video footage shows that there was no trooper in the vehicle as protesters marched by, and the vehicle itself was not damaged beyond some spray paint on the windshield. 

The two leaders did not issue an apology until the New York Times published an all-inclusive account of events that followed weeks of local news coverage. Residents and city councilmembers in West Philadelphia are calling for more investigations into police’s violent use of force during other demonstrations. 

Protester Isaac Scott, a Philadelphia resident who said he was tear gassed on the interstate on June 1, told WHYY that he does not trust Mayor Kenney to do his job. Scott said that in addition to Kenney’s late apology, the mayor has not met activists’ calls to defund the police and send that funding to other social programs. 

In an amended budget, the city moved $14 million in funds that included money for crossing guards and new public safety officers to the Managing Director’s Office. 

“It was really a joke,” Scott said.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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