A 300-person Zoom call intended to bring Philadelphia residents together devolved into frustrated arguing Tuesday night after a Fishtown police captain, who has been under fire for a month over his response to a roving mob of white men armed with baseball bats and metal pipes, responded to a resident who asked him, “Do Black lives matter?”
“Of course they do,” Capt. William Fisher of the 26th District responded. “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. Asian lives matter. Native American lives matter.”
“Do you not understand the issue with that?” the questioner responded. Others chimed in, and Fisher ended the interaction, saying, “Can the moderator please get the guy from hijacking this meeting?”
The moment overshadowed an apology from police and was among the most contentious during the charged virtual community meeting. It was organized by the 26th Police District to address residents’ questions about the official response to the group that roamed Girard Avenue on June 1, days into the national uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Members of the group assaulted and threatened multiple people and used racist and homophobic slurs, behavior caught by cameras and widely shared.
A handful of police brass were on hand Tuesday, including Inspector Michael Cram, commanding officer of the East Division, who apologized to the community, saying, “If we had to do it all over again, we would have gone about a million different directions. We’re sorry.”
Fisher, who said “there was agitation on both sides right from the get-go,” said he and his officers didn’t have enough resources to disperse the crowd by the 6 p.m. curfew without spreading themselves too thin.
“We should have gotten everybody out of there no later than 6:30,” Fisher said. “We failed on that end, and I take responsibility for that.”
Some of the dozens of residents on the call left disappointed that Fisher didn’t commit to concrete changes. Others said the bickering, name-calling, and vulgarities that flooded the call’s chat function took away from the point that Fishtown residents and business owners expressed: that they continue to feel unsafe. One business owner told Fisher: “It was very clear you did not see them as a threat.... Anyone with two eyes in their head and ears on their head could look upon that crowd and go, ‘Oh, this is bad news.‘”
Scott Hearn, a 34-year-old Fishtown resident who said he was threatened that night by a man wielding a hatchet, was on the call Tuesday, and said Fisher and other officials resorted to “platitudes” and didn’t seem to recognize how openly hostile the Girard Avenue group was.
“If the cops can’t judge that, then they probably shouldn’t be cops,” Hearn said.
The call was moderated by Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, who told police, “I believe everybody tonight wants to hear a little bit more from all of you guys.
“I’m trying to help you guys say what will make some people feel more satisfied here,” said Landau, who at times appeared exasperated. “But the truth is that people are feeling a lot of pain.”
While the group, mostly of white people carrying weapons, walked the street hours after curfew, saying they were protecting their neighborhood from looters, dozens of police looked on, in some cases chatting and sharing pizza with the group. They included Officer Joseph Goodwin Jr., whose brother Richie shoved one protester and was photographed punching another. The officer was also photographed alongside Joseph Markley, who was seen on video spitting at and tussling with a protester.
Police and 911 fielded 36 calls that night reporting a “person with a weapon” between 4 and 10 p.m. Officers didn’t arrest anyone during that time within a half-mile of the district where the group was stationed.
Police Internal Affairs and District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office are each investigating how Fisher and his officers handled the roving crowd. Krasner was also on the call Tuesday, and at one point challenged Fisher — who said “carrying a bat is not illegal unless you commit a crime with it” — saying he had relayed a “highly inaccurate” interpretation of the law, and suggested that people carrying weapons and intending to cause harm could be charged with a misdemeanor.
The district attorney, whose career prior to his election was largely based around police misconduct, chimed in during a discussion about whether police officers working a protest the night after the incident in question had intentionally covered their badge numbers. Fisher said officers were simply wearing mourning crepe in memory of officers who died earlier this year.
“We really need to be honest with each other about all the details and not resort to these excuses,” Krasner responded. Deputy Police Commissioner Joel Dales then acknowledged what Fisher would not: “There were officers who intentionally covered their badge numbers.”
Krasner and others have also pointed to a similar approach police took on several occasions in June in South Philadelphia, when dozens of people, most of them white, some armed, stood in defense of a statue of Christopher Columbus. Some assaulted and threatened protesters and onlookers.
Krasner said his office received 41 complaints from neighbors regarding the Fishtown incident and vowed, “We’re going to charge people when we have to.” Last week, police arrested George Graf, 36, for allegedly assaulting a WHYY producer and his girlfriend. While Graf is the only person to have been arrested in connection with the June 1 confrontation, he was charged with felony criminal conspiracy to engage in aggravated assault, an indicator more people could be charged.
The hour-and-a-half-long meeting ended after Fisher said that regaining the community’s trust will be “a long process.”
“We’re going to continue to work hard and do whatever we can to get that trust back to where it was before June 1,” he said. “I’m in this for the long run.”