Besieged, then betrayed
Residents struggle with fear, fury and trauma after police tear-gassed residential blocks amid unrest in West Philadelphia.
Sirens and helicopters echoed through West Philadelphia on Sunday, May 31, and Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi feared to let her two children go outside.
Unrest in Philadelphia over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police had come to the historic Black-owned business corridor on 52nd Street, less than a block from her home. Mubarak-Hadi and her sons, ages 3 and 6, turned on the television to block out the noise.
It was a warm spring evening, though, and the 32-year-old mother had left the front windows open.
Then, from the living room, 6-year-old Yaseem called out: “Something is in my eye.”
Mubarak-Hadi walked into the room, and into a wall of tear gas. Gasping, her eyes, skin, and throat burning, she ran to the windows to close them. She couldn’t make it: The gas was too strong.
Grabbing sunglasses and face masks, the young family raced for the only place they could think to escape: a windowless bathroom.
“It just came from nowhere, this invisible mist that was everywhere. I just went into shock,” Mubarak-Hadi, who has asthma, said. “I couldn’t breathe.”
She and her sons were among dozens of residents who choked on poisonous chemicals that leached into their houses — as Philadelphia SWAT officers fired dozens of canisters of tear gas into their neighborhood for more than two hours on May 31.
Six weeks later, as much of Philadelphia has begun to move on, the city has yet to reckon with what happened in West Philadelphia that day. Many community leaders and residents still struggle with their fear and fury. They feel betrayed and forgotten by officials who have apologized for other incidents of excessive police force while continuing to defend decisions that hurt them.
An Inquirer review of the events of May 31 in West Philadelphia — drawing on interviews with dozens of neighbors, police, and city officials, videos posted to social media, TV footage, police radio calls, and incident reports — shows that what happened along 52nd Street was the result of failures both at the command level and by individual officers.
Police Department leaders failed to adequately plan for a weekend of volatile protests, putting too few officers on the streets in outlying neighborhoods and leaving those who were there without clear direction. Consequently, commanders approved aggressive tactics, and some officers, in a department long plagued by incidents of racial bias, targeted bystanders and residents — in one case, a witness said, using racial slurs.
In a neighborhood long distrustful of police, what started in the early afternoon — with people breaking into stores, a few setting police cars on fire, and some officers pinned down by people throwing rocks along one of West Philadelphia’s busiest business corridors — had by midafternoon devolved into officers indiscriminately firing gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at not only agitators but also residents, protesters, and bystanders.
In the process, residents of 14 square blocks of a predominantly Black neighborhood bore much of the brunt.
A family celebrating a birthday party on Chestnut Street, forced inside to flush their eyes. An elderly woman coming home from a visit with her niece, left with a welt on her forehead from a police-fired projectile. A cabdriver, asking police for help after his windows were smashed. According to witnesses, an officer shot him in the temple with a rubber bullet without bothering to step out of his police truck.
“When you take people’s dignity and respect, they are going to fight back,” said one high-level department official with knowledge of the tactics used that day. “Cops in this department do have implicit bias and with no leadership, no management, and no control, the cops are getting what they want: a fight.”
In an interview with The Inquirer, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said a departmental investigation and an outside review of the protest response are underway. Several officers alleged to have engaged in misconduct have been identified. None have been disciplined yet.
Despite the unrest over Floyd’s death roiling cities around the country, she acknowledged she initially failed to assign enough officers to cover a weekend of potentially volatile protests.
But whatever the department’s plan, inadequate or not, officers are still required to operate within the department’s guidelines for use of force, she said.
“The directives are what the directives are,” Outlaw said. “There’s a level of personal, individual accountability, as well as accountability on the side of supervisors and those who are out there on the scene.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, who gave Outlaw the initial authorization to use tear gas in West Philadelphia, said in a separate interview this week that he regretted it. The substance is banned from warfare but permitted for domestic use and has not been used as a crowd dispersal method in the city since the days of former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo in the 1970s. But police in cities across the country have deployed tear gas on crowds protesting police brutality dozens of times, spurring a national outcry.
“This wouldn’t happen in other places. I will never see a tank patrolling up and down Society Hill.”
Still, Kenney defended its use in West Philadelphia, saying the situation there was unlike any in the city that weekend and he feared for the lives of officers and civilians. Hours after that interview, Kenney, in a written statement, apologized:
“My apology to West Philadelphians includes an apology for my own actions and for my delay in offering a substantive comment on what occurred that day,” he said. “Police were there to protect the neighborhood during a chaotic incident, but instead, peaceful members of that community felt further besieged and unsafe.”
» READ MORE: This West Philly neighborhood had been struggling to rebuild. Then the looting started.
But the people there say that more than the looting and fires, it was police violence toward residents and onlookers that made them feel besieged. By that evening, they said, police themselves were driving the chaos in the neighborhood.
“It’s contributed to the thought that no police has to be better than what we have right now,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, the prominent racial justice activist and pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, who was on the corridor that day. “This wouldn’t happen in other places. I will never see a tank patrolling up and down Society Hill.”
‘Out of control’
The tension on 52nd Street, known as “West Philly’s Main Street,” was rising before anything had even happened.
On the morning of May 31, Kamau Mshale, a longtime West Philadelphia resident and activist, went to the Family Dollar at 52nd and Arch Streets in the late morning to observe police massing there.
In a neighborhood long accustomed to heavy police presence, after a week of national protests over police brutality, and the rage and looting in Center City the night before, just the sight of police in riot helmets stung.
“People were angry,” he said. “It’s literally people’s neighborhood, and you’re wearing riot gear.”
Just before 3 p.m., an officer’s voice crackled over police radio.
“Just to advise you, at 5-2 and Chestnut off of 5-4 and Market, we’ve got a large crowd gathering.”
Radio calls from that afternoon depict an increasingly volatile scene stretching from Arch to Chestnut Streets growing chaotic, and quickly. For 90 minutes, police asked for backup, and as it arrived, people pelted police officers with debris, according to radio calls. People smashed the windows of police cars, looted their contents, and set some ablaze. Others put a burning squad car in drive and pushed it toward officers on the street.
Fifteen officers were injured. A captain took a cinder block to the leg and developed a blood clot and needed emergency surgery. Inspector Derrick Wood, a 22-year veteran who oversees police operations in West Philadelphia and has made rebuilding the relationship with residents a focal point of his command, suffered a fractured nose in two places when he was hit by a brick.
Kenney said officials were worried someone would be killed, a concern echoed in the minds of officers on the street. “Multiple cops told me they thought they were going to have to shoot their way out of there,” said one commander who interviewed officers who had responded to 52nd Street. “It was that out of control.”
But witnesses’ accounts of the scene, from Arch to Spruce Street along 52nd Street, vary wildly among blocks, with some describing chaos and looting on some sections of the corridor at the same time that others said their corner was calm. In that environment, witnesses said, officers loosed their aggression on bystanders no matter where they were.
» READ MORE: I’m a West Philadelphian. The looting is not our biggest problem. | Opinion
Bedjy Jeanty, a 32-year-old father and line cook, was near 52nd and Market, with a poster reading “Black Lives Matter,” waiting for an expected protest rally to begin. But he was surrounded at the time by neighbors who had come to watch the growing police presence.
Early in the afternoon, a group of police officers jumped out of three vans near the Snipes sneaker store and began to taunt him and other neighbors, he said.
“They shot me with a rubber bullet. I was just here to visit my niece.”
Multiple officers used the N-word and called protesters “monkeys,” Jeanty told The Inquirer, recounting allegations he also made in a federal lawsuit this week. They pushed people back with batons toward a McDonald’s on Chestnut Street, deepening the rage on the corner.
A few blocks south, at 52nd and Chancellor Streets, a woman in her 60s stumbled down the block with a welt on her head. Arriving home around 3:30, Amelia Carter watched her sink onto her front steps, telling a neighbor: ‘They shot me with a rubber bullet. I was just here to visit my niece.' ”
An explosion — likely a burning police car — belched smoke down Market Street. Police shot rubber bullets at a group of young men breaking into the Sunray drugstore, Carter said, causing a stampede.
Neighbors tried to stop people from throwing rocks or breaking into stores, and banded together to guard Black-owned businesses — and one another. Carter and her housemates lined up to protect a local bookstore. Another group stood outside the African Cultural Art Forum, a longtime neighborhood institution.
Meanwhile, in a surreal scene, routine traffic still cruised through the neighborhood. Police hadn’t stopped it.
‘Understaffed from the jump’
There was a plan, but it wasn’t much of one. In the interview this week, Outlaw acknowledged the first time she reviewed a staffing plan to respond to the protests was late Friday night, a day before the first demonstrations erupted in Center City. She had suggestions, she said, but it was far too late at night to reassign people.
“The entire plan was understaffed from the jump,” Outlaw said.
For years, the department has followed a playbook for policing public unrest that has been touted as a national model: Deployed officers lock arms and slowly walk forward, moving people out of the area, while having more in reserve to respond to trouble spots. The goal is not to clash with a volatile crowd, but to calm and clear it. It worked at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and at protests a year earlier over Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police.
It’s unknowable whether it would have worked on 52nd Street, with such anger on the street, but police never tried. When 52nd Street exploded on Sunday, the streets were not staffed with enough cops to safely carry out their usual tactics.
When significant police forces eventually arrived — in the form of SWAT units, in two armored vehicles, one of which is a military-style vehicle marketed as “the BEAR” — they only escalated the chaos, witnesses said. A high-ranking law enforcement source described the SWAT officers as frustrated, after having been largely benched the day before while looting and violence roiled Center City.
SWAT members view their duty as protecting police officers, sources said, and cops on the street Sunday looked at the military-style vehicles’ arrival as cavalry coming to rescue them.
The neighborhood saw it as the beginning of a siege.
Over the radio, an officer informed superiors they had declared the scene an unlawful assembly, warned over bullhorns to disperse, and then, just after 4 p.m., moved in.
None of the people on the street that day interviewed by The Inquirer remembered hearing a warning.
» READ MORE: More than 140 protesters, residents sue Philly police over tear gas, ‘extraordinary abuses of police power’
‘You’ve got the green light’
Mshale, the activist who had stopped by the Family Dollar on the morning of the 31st, recognized one of the armored vehicles rumbling down Arch Street. He’d seen it the day before, in Center City. He worried about what was to come.
Within minutes, one of the SWAT trucks peeled around a corner on Chestnut Street as officers began pepper-spraying the crowd there. Others followed behind, shooting rubber bullets, wielding batons, and firing pepper spray.
On Arch Street, independent journalist Antonio Boone, a Temple University graduate and Baltimore native, recorded the scene on his phone, wanting to document unrest like the kind that had roiled his own city in 2015.
“I watched my city burn on TV,” Boone said. “I didn’t want to just sit here and watch things happen, watch my city burn here, without people being able to say what’s going on here.”
He was live-tweeting when police sprayed something he thought might have been a fire extinguisher out of an armored car.
With the husks of burned police cars on the street behind him, Boone asked: “Do I look like I’m on fire?” He choked on the substance and realized it was pepper spray.
Still filming, Boone asked for the badge number of the officer who sprayed him.
The officer pepper-sprayed him again.
(Police forbid using pepper spray at random or using it to disperse nonviolent people or peaceful protesters.)
Boone’s corner of Arch Street had already begun to calm when the SWAT vehicle arrived, he said. “Once that happened, the situation got far more heightened. In my opinion, police antagonized the crowd.”
At 4:40 p.m., an officer asked over police radio for “approval for a chemical dispersal of 52nd Street, just one block north of Market.”
A supervisor replied: “You’ve got the green light for that. Give me a minute to move the police out of the way because the wind’s blowing back.”
» READ MORE: West Philly protester: We got teargassed. It didn’t stop us. | Opinion
Children live here
Onika Carrine saw the officer point a weapon at her from an armored SWAT car, and thought it was a bazooka.
The graduate of West Philadelphia Catholic High School had participated in peaceful protests in Center City the day before, and on May 31 heard her own neighborhood was roiling with conflict. She and a friend wanted to see what was happening for themselves.
The looting wasn’t what scared her. The cops were. The first thing she saw when she arrived on Arch Street was the armored SWAT car and officers in riot gear. When an officer in the SWAT car fired tear gas at her, she turned and fled.
As she ran, she thought: Children live here.
Witnesses said police seemed to make no distinction among agitators, peaceful demonstrators, or people who just happened to be in the area. And it was often not clear what prompted them to fire.
In some locations, officers targeted clusters of observers while ignoring looting happening nearby. About a mile and a half away, the ParkWest Town Center shopping complex was also being targeted by looters, and, witnesses said, received no police protection.
The gas created a haze on the street. Tear gas is a powerful chemical agent known to cause long-term lung damage, and the feeling of being unable to breathe easily or see created panic.
“People were hollering and screaming,” said Clinton Lewis, who lives near 52nd and Chancellor Streets. “We thought we was in Iraq or Afghanistan that day.”
“We thought we was in Iraq or Afghanistan that day.”
Neighbors became makeshift medics, standing on corners and porches, pouring milk and water into people’s eyes to soothe the chemical burns. One of them, Meghan Swyryn, a Temple University medical school student, said she struggled just to calm people down enough to clear out their eyes.
“You’re going to be OK,” Swyryn told them. “You’re in a safer place now.”
Multiple people described police firing rubber bullets at them and unarmed bystanders. A rubber bullet dislocated Jeanty’s right shoulder, requiring a visit to the emergency room. Bartender Antonio Nazario said he was taking photos when police shot him twice in the chest, and then twice more in the back of the torso and head, as he turned to run.
“There was no reason they could accuse me or say I was looting or rioting or protesting,” said Nazario, 30.
To Carter, it felt as if police had decided to be at war with residents.
“Clearly, they didn’t stop the looting or destruction of property,” she said. “The only thing they contributed to was terrorizing and gassing people.”
Understanding the pain
The area around 52nd Street is a neighborhood in flux. A historically Black community that has endured decades of disinvestment and neglect, it is seeing more white faces as property values rise. Black business owners see an area that has the potential to thrive. There’s also fear, though, that the people living there will be pushed aside.
It’s a community with one of the highest rates of gun violence in the city. Police are a constant sight. But among some residents, the fear of cops rivals that of gun violence.
It’s not far from where police dropped a bomb on the MOVE house in 1985, killing 11 people, including children, and destroying an entire block of rowhouses. On nearby Willows Avenue, in 2014, plainclothes police officers shot and gravely wounded a pizza deliveryman, resulting in the largest settlement in a police shooting case in the city’s history.
“People in the community don’t really trust the police. There’s too many reports of people calling the police for help, and then they get beaten and arrested,” said the Rev. Damone Jones. Born and raised in the area, he has led a congregation at the Bible Way Baptist Church at 52nd and Master Streets for nearly three decades. He’s also a former police chaplain who sits on the Board of Prisons.
“If it was 200 white people, they would not have shot gas.”
Jones said he didn’t agree with the looting he saw on the 31st, but he understands the pain of the community.
“When you’re dealing with an oppressed and depressed community that’s used to having the least of everything, people want to look at what they call the looting and make that an issue,” he said. “You have to think about what was stolen from the people who live there.”
Residents and outsiders alike found it difficult to imagine similar force being used in another neighborhood.
“If it was 200 white people, they would not have shot gas,” one police official said.
Five canisters in a row
That was exactly the conclusion Jones and his 18-year-old son reached as they watched from 51st and Chestnut Streets with the clergy who gathered in the neighborhood to help people affected by the unrest.
“It was an object lesson, when those canisters hit the ground,” Jones said. “When we could feel the tear gas burning our eyes, and thought, ‘What’s it doing to people in these homes?’ ”
Despite the chaos nearby, one family on Chestnut Street held a birthday party on the sidewalk, enjoying the first nice summerlike day outside a house on Chestnut they have owned for decades. Rev. Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel AME, who had just pulled up on his motorcycle, blinking tear gas out of his eyes, saw it as a sign of how normalized such over-policing is in the neighborhood.
Standing near a small group of protesters, Tyler watched as noxious clouds poured out of the looted Foot Locker. Suddenly, a canister rolled between his legs.
» READ MORE: West Philly’s historic black corridor looks to rebuild after unrest and pandemic
Within seconds, the gas became inescapable. It wafted into the residential neighborhoods on either side of 52nd Street. Witness accounts and video indicate police fired tear gas canisters directly onto residential streets.
The family celebrating a birthday scattered inside. Elderly neighbors and clergy helped each other through the smoke. A mother caught in a cloud of gas watched as her daughter was shot with a rubber bullet.
Nearby, where Amelia Carter and her neighbors were protecting a strip of Black-owned business, police fired tear gas again in quick succession — five canisters in a row, she said.
She ran, fumbling her way home through the smoke only to find when she arrived that the noxious fumes had filled her house, too. There was nowhere to seek relief.
Up and down the block, parents pulled children inside to escape, even as it rolled through windows and under doors.
Outlaw said she couldn’t explain what was going through the minds of supervisors who oversaw officers as they fired tear gas onto the residential blocks and continued to do so even after the looting and unrest had been quelled.
“I’m aware of several instances where munitions were used against persons who were peaceful, or passively resisting,” she said. “Internal affairs [investigations] have been initiated and they’re currently underway now.”
As for her own role in authorizing the decision to deploy the tactic in the first place, Outlaw maintained that she had made clear to incident commander Dennis Wilson — who has since taken a voluntary demotion after the teargassing of I-676 — that the gas was not to be used “indiscriminately” and that officers had to follow department guidelines.
“But, again,” she added, “we really relied on the [officers] who were there experiencing it.”
The gassing continued, onto a largely calmed 52nd Street, until at least 7 p.m. And as the sun set, clouds cleared, and a citywide curfew went into effect, residents shaken by what they had just witnessed emerged from their houses to join impromptu demonstrations against police.
“People were on the streets in their house bonnets, in their slippers, in their pajamas,” said Pascale Vallee, a West Philadelphian who works for a disabled advocacy group.
The gas had dissipated, but indignities continued.
Late in the evening, Anthony Smith, a social-studies teacher, was with his friend Mshale, the activist, as a SWAT team moved toward protesters and toppled their stash of snacks.
» READ MORE: Black groups demand Philly end tear gas use, put police funding toward school repair
Smith tried to warn a neighbor to leave the area. But police moved to arrest him, ripping off his glasses and smashing his phone screen, he said. As officers pinned him to the ground, he heard a loud boom nearby and wondered if he had been shot. Only later, he learned it was Mshale who had been hit with a rubber bullet instead.
Smith remained in police custody for the next four hours, he said, driven around the city in a police wagon with the man he had tried to help. Officers released him at 3 a.m. from a district station more than four miles from his house on 57th Street, with a $20 curfew violation.
“I was angry,” Smith said. “I can’t really see. It’s dark as hell. Police are flying by on Broad. They could’ve easily just picked me up again.”
Still under curfew, with a dead phone battery and no glasses, he began the long walk home.
Six weeks later, the residents of 52nd Street are still waiting for answers.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier represents the area and has demanded accountability for police conduct.
“The police are constantly saying they want to build trust, so that’s not the way to build trust at all,” she said. “That’s what the residents of my community deserve.”
Though Kenney issued an apology via his spokesperson this week, Outlaw has stopped short of doing so.
But she acknowledged that the department has to listen and engage better with people in communities like West Philadelphia. She said she was “sickened” by accusations that some officers had used racial slurs while dealing with West Philadelphians and she encouraged anyone who witnessed that or any other undue force that day to help identify the offenders.
“I sincerely sympathize and empathize with those who were impacted there that had absolutely nothing to do with any of this,” she said. ”Where there is force being used against passive resistance, they will be held accountable.”
She declined to say more about tactics because of pending internal investigations and federal lawsuits filed this week over the department’s conduct over that first weekend of protests.
Lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who filed one of those suits, have described the response on 52nd Street as “racially discriminatory” — a characterization both Kenney and Outlaw reject.
“That assertion is false, offensive, and I don’t think it really deserves a comment from me,” Kenney said.
Still, the events on 52nd Street are among a series in the wake of Floyd’s death that have felt all too familiar to Black Philadelphians. On June 1, officers in Fishtown shared pizza with armed white residents who harassed and assaulted passersby. A month later, police shared drinks with members of the Proud Boys, an alt-right group.
“This city does not care about its Black residents,” Mshale, the activist, whose bruise and welt from the rubber bullet left a hard lump on his chest for more than a month. “They were pepper-spraying people walking in their neighborhood. Then, they try to justify that.”
That day’s events are likely to erase any progress the Police Department had made in restoring faith in West Philadelphia.
“The end result of this is going to be years and years and years of damaged trust with the community,” one high-ranking law enforcement official said.
The trauma on 52nd Street didn’t end on the 31st — it began. Neighbors described waking up crying in the days that followed. They rubbed at bruises and welts from rubber bullets that wouldn’t fade. They lived in rented hotel rooms because their homes still reeked of gas. One woman on Locust Street has not left her house since that night.
Parents have had to explain to children why their house had filled with gas that made their eyes and lungs burn, leaving a sickeningly sour smell on their furniture and clothes.
When the fumes had cleared from their living room, Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi sat her 6-year-old son down. Earlier in the year, he had proclaimed to his first-grade class he hoped to become a police officer. Now she explained that what happened to their family is what happens when police abuse their authority. She told him how people who look like him shoulder the worst of that burden.
“He lost some of his innocence that night,” she said.
Contributing to this article were staffers Tim Tai, Jessica Griffin, Raishad Hardnett, Astrid Rodrigues, Justine McDaniel, and Maddie Hanna.
The Inquirer’s investigative reporting is supported in part by the Lenfest Institute’s Investigative News Fund. Editorial content is created independently of the fund’s donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at lenfestinstitute.org. Gifts to support the Investigative News Fund can be made at www.inquirer.com/donate.