City officials Tuesday pledged to crack down on what they called simmering vigilantism after as many as 100 men armed with baseball bats and hammers roamed the Fishtown section for hours Monday night, saying they were protecting police and local businesses from protesters.
At least two people said they were assaulted by members of the group, including a reporter who tweeted that he was beaten and bloodied after filming the scene. Others said they were screamed at, spit on, or threatened with racist or homophobic slurs. Photos circulated of police officers taking photos with the bat-wielding men on the streets more than two hours after the citywide 6 p.m. curfew.
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Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday criticized how police handled the group, saying: “We tolerated it last night for too long, and that was a mistake.”
The mayor said the group’s actions were “antagonistic” and the city doesn’t condone “armed vigilantism.” He said he was “disturbed” by reports of officers high-fiving members of the group, and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the force does not condone “any form of vigilante justice or taking the law into one’s own hands.”
The Fishtown group claimed to be a defense against activists or looters, although neither have reached the neighborhood since Saturday’s first demonstrations over the death last week of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Other city neighborhoods have seen similar attempts to defend homes and businesses, including residents who on Sunday were given permission by officers to guard a South Philly Target store well past the 6 p.m. curfew.
But how police handled the crowd in Fishtown, long a majority-white neighborhood, stood in contrast to mass arrests for violating curfew that took place in majority-minority neighborhoods like West Philly and Kensington, as well as aggressive tactics used against people earlier Monday who were protesting police brutality.
“I saw hundreds of people teargassed two hours ago for walking around," one man yelled at officers Monday, “and these people are standing around with bats."
As the night wore on, the group clashed with other residents — the dueling crowds hurled vulgarities back and forth and yelled about “the new Fishtown” and “the old Fishtown,” arguing over the soul of a neighborhood that has undergone seismic change over the last two decades.
Four people told The Inquirer they called 911 or the 26th Police District to complain that they felt unsafe and that they had not been taken seriously. Fishtown resident Shannon Wink said she spoke to an officer answering calls on the nonemergency line, telling him she was concerned about the weapons.
“These people aren’t doing anything wrong, was what I was told,” she said.
The group began congregating about 5 p.m. as rumors circulated that protesters might target the 26th District station. By the curfew, dozens of people — almost entirely men — had gathered, some chatting with officers. Many had baseball bats. Some had hammers, golf clubs, and pipes.
Asked how she would describe the group, Outlaw said, “I would not describe that group as someone that I would want speaking for me, or speaking on behalf of my Police Department."
“I don’t welcome" them, she said. “I don’t invite them to come back. And we don’t need them.”
Kara Khan, a photographer from Fishtown, and her boyfriend, Matt Williams, were returning home from the protest on the Vine Street Expressway.
As they were biking by the precinct, Khan and Williams, both 31, raised their fists in support of a protester who appeared to be in an argument with police. The group with bats responded by throwing full water bottles, one of which struck Williams in the face.
“'They’re assaulting us. How is this OK?’” Khan said she asked an officer. “He said, ‘Now you know how we feel.’”
Khan said Williams was thrown off his bike by the men and punched in the head. They stood over him and said he “should be grateful they weren’t using bats,” Williams told Khan. An image posted to Facebook shows the altercation.
By about 6:30, Police Capt. William Fisher said, “Thanks for your help, you got to go home.” A small group of protesters assembled on the other side of the avenue. One woman held a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” when two men broke off from the group and shouted “All Lives Matter.”
She said one of the men spat on her, telling her that he “has COVID.” The woman spoke with The Inquirer on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
“The fact that these guys felt emboldened to go after us like that, in front of the whole neighborhood and in front of cops, I worry what they would do to someone who is more vulnerable when no one is looking," she said.
After the exchange, a reporter watched Fisher discuss the incident with the protesters. He repeatedly told the woman who was spit on that the men were "allowed to be out here with bats.”
The group dispersed from the precinct and walked toward Frankford Avenue, the neighborhood’s business corridor. Roland Kassis, who has developed more than a million square feet of property in the area, said that while he condemns racist language and supports the Black Lives Matter movement, he appreciated those who aimed to protect the neighborhood.
“It is scary to see,” Kassis said, “but I feel that it is scarier to have people that don’t have our best interests that want to come loot and do other things."
Scott Hearn said he walked by the crowd when a truck pulled up and a man got out with a hatchet. Hearn said he yelled: “This guy has an ax!” A video posted to social media by a WHYY reporter who was later assaulted shows the man then yelling to Hearn: “Mind your own f—ing business, you’re lucky I ain’t got my f—ing gun.”
Hearn said he asked an officer, “Are you going to do anything about this? He has a weapon." He said the officer told him to “stop escalating the situation.” The man with the hatchet walked back into the crowd.
By 9 p.m. both groups had dispersed after “a third and final warning” from officers at the scene.
Kenney was asked Tuesday why a vigilante group in Fishtown was allowed to stay out past curfew without the police arresting them, but protesters in other neighborhoods were treated differently.
“I don’t know,” he responded. "But we’re going to find out.”