When Ron Joseph arrived at Marconi Plaza on Sunday night — on Day Two of a chaotic protest that brought at times a few hundred white men from South Philadelphia to “protect” a statue of Christopher Columbus, some bearing rifles, baseball bats, or golf clubs as silent warnings — he intended only to check on his friends who were there observing or counter-protesting, he said.
Within a half-hour, the 24-year-old Northeast Philadelphia resident fled with a broken nose and pepper spray burning his eyes.
“This really was an act of mob violence,” he said. “And the police did not do a thing to help me or any of the other people who were violently attacked by the protesters. The police just stood by and instead were encouraging them. They were congratulating them. They were also encouraging by inaction. They laughed."
Video shot by his friends appears to back the claims of Joseph and a half-dozen others who say police allowed the Columbus “defenders” to swarm around them, punch them, push them to the ground, kick and stomp on them, burn them with lighters, cigarettes and cigars, sexually assault them, and shove them into busy Broad Street traffic.
The incidents of violence began in the early evening, and police repeatedly intervened at that time, those present said. But as the skirmishes accelerated as night fell and some in the crowd grew visibly inebriated, police often were notably missing, they said.
“You don’t need no cops!” one man guarding the statue is heard shouting on video as a woman asks him to back away and receives no help. After an alleged assault on one counterprotester about 6:30 p.m., an officer is seen on video repeating what those present said was a frequent refrain through the evening: The officer would not take a report or make an arrest, but said the counterprotester could “go down to the District Attorney’s Office and file a complaint for the simple assault that occurred against you.”
Alex Bomstein, a Clean Air Council lawyer who lives nearby and went as a legal observer, said he heard an officer telling one of the men guarding the statue, “You do what you gotta do." Another officer, observing the conflict, said, “I’m going to let these guys take care of it.”
A spokesperson for the Philadelphia police said an internal investigation is underway and declined to comment further. He confirmed that there had been several changes in command Monday, including the removal of Capt. Louis Campione from leadership of the First District, which includes the plaza, but said they were not related to any specific incident.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said he couldn’t comment on pending investigations, but said he was disturbed in particular by police preventing people from filming in a public park.
“We believe in accountability being evenhanded," he said. "It is not OK to take baseball bats to threaten and assault people. It is not OK to say you’re defending something when that’s a lie. It is not OK to walk around with a hatchet when you’ve got no wood to chop, to threaten and assault people. We fully intend to hold people accountable regardless of race, regardless of where they live, regardless of their politics ... regardless of things including whether they are employed by the Philadelphia Police Department.”
During the protests, police made only two arrests, both for assault, including a 40-year-old man from Northeast Philadelphia arrested for assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of instrument of a crime in connection with his use of pepper spray. They issued four code-violation notices, a spokesperson said.
Those present differ on whether the alleged assaults were instigated by counter-protesters.
The Columbus defenders “were pushing them out, like, ‘Get out. You antagonized us enough,” said Andre DeFrancesco, who said he was there to defend against "antifa terrorists” and protect his community from vandals, the same reason he went to defend a South Philadelphia Target store earlier in June. Overall, DeFrancesco said, he observed great restraint by the pro-Columbus protesters and diligence by police. In the end, he said, "emotions were high and [the counterprotesters] were pushed out. Very rarely did you see a fist being thrown.”
In videos posted to Twitter, Democratic State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, whose district includes South Philadelphia, can be seen putting herself between the crowd and a counter-protester, urging the Columbus defenders to stop as they followed the man down the street. Fiedler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who early Sunday tweeted that “vigilantism is inappropriate,” on Monday announced a public process to determine the fate of the statue at a time when Columbus statues are being dismantled across the country, including in Camden and Wilmington. "It’s also my hope that by initiating this process, the current tensions in Marconi Plaza can end. I urge all South Philadelphians attempting to protect the statue to stand down and have your voices heard through the public process.”
While those calling for the statue’s removal say it’s an emblem of atrocities against indigenous people, the defenders claimed it as an icon of Italian American heritage.
Though there had not been a highly organized campaign to eliminate the statue prior to this weekend’s clashes, defenders contend the city planned to remove it overnight. They went to court over the weekend to secure an injunction protecting it.
Some of the physical conflicts Sunday arose after repeated verbal provocations from counterprotesters, and prolonged questioning by a journalist for the media site Unicorn Riot.
But other assaults were unprovoked, said Amanda McIllmurray, an organizer who worked on the campaign of Democratic state Senate candidate Nikil Saval and said she came to observe because she lives nearby.
She said she endured rape threats, and a man exposed his penis and rubbed it against her. She also said she was burned with a cigar and sprayed with pepper spray, triggering an asthma attack.
As friends she was with tried to leave, she said, they were repeatedly hemmed in and shoved by protesters. “A state representative asked police to help get us out," McIllmurray said. She said she heard the police respond, "No, if we were there we probably wanted a fight and there was nothing to do about it.”
McIllmurray and Anlin Wang, who arrived around 8:30 p.m. to give his friends a ride home and saw the scuffle, said the worst violence was focused on the nonwhite members of their group.
Dave Pashley, who on video is seen pleading with police to take a report of assault earlier in the evening, said he was choked, then slammed to the ground amid moving traffic on Broad Street, surrounded by six or more men kicking him in the head and stomping on his ribs. “The cops just let it happen and watched it and did nothing," he said. "That’s what infuriated me. They were clearly on the side of white violence.”
In videos, he and a 34-year-old woman who goes by Deborah Rose (not her real last name, because she had been doxxed in the past) can be seen backing down the street as protesters follow them. Later, both can be seen on the ground trying to escape blows from all sides.
“I can’t help but notice the stark difference between the fact that [a few weeks ago] I was tear-gassed for just standing in the middle of the Parkway, and yesterday white men took swings at me while making rape threats and white police officers looked on and laughed,” she said.