The protests and violence that coursed across the country since the police-related death of a black man in Minneapolis erupted Saturday in Philadelphia, as a peaceful demonstration by thousands gave way over hours to anger and vandalism, with multiple stores looted, buildings defaced, and police vehicles set aflame.
By nightfall, 13 police officers had been injured and at least 35 people were reported arrested. Four police vehicles were also destroyed, and at times plumes of smoke rose above the skyline.
City officials and clergy pleaded for calm, attributing most of the violence to “outside agitators” and not the nonviolent demonstrators. Still, Mayor Jim Kenney imposed an 8 p.m. curfew for the rest of the weekend, and police, many clad in helmets and batons, sought to clear the streets.
“None of today’s acts of violence or damage to property will do anything to restore faith and trust to the police and communities of color,” Kenney said. “Although anger and distrust are justified, acts of violence and destruction are never justified."
By day’s end, Philadelphia had joined the growing list of cities where anger exploded over the death of George Floyd, who died Monday after an officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nine minutes, even as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Miami, Wilmington, and San Francisco saw tense protests Saturday, following earlier ones in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York, among other places.
After violent flare-ups in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg as well, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf late Saturday signed a disaster emergency declaration offering assistance. “People have every right to speak out and demonstrate, but it’s unacceptable to take advantage of protests to incite violence, harm others, and destroy property,” he said in a tweet.
Kenney had pledged Friday that Philadelphia would be “respectful” of the planned protests, and that was how Saturday began.
About 150 people gathered at City Hall at noon, most wearing masks and some carrying signs. Standing a socially distant six feet apart, the group members knelt for nine minutes, in remembrance of Floyd, who had been apprehended outside a convenience store after a report that a counterfeit bill had been passed.
“This is going to be a peaceful protest,” said Josh Yeboah, who said he organized the City Hall demonstration. “We are social distancing from police.”
And watchful officers kept their distance as well. The crowd then marched from City Hall along the Parkway to a gathering organized by the city’s Black Lives Matter group at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By then the crowd had swelled to 3,000, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.
Jasmine Moore, 19, said she had never been to a protest against police treatment of African Americans but felt she had to attend on Saturday. “It felt like the final straw,” said Moore, who lives in Philly. “I’m tired of the injustice, the brutality.”
Also attending was Georgia Getz, 53, of Graduate Hospital, who is white. She said that when she saw the video of Floyd dying, “I thought just how unreal it seemed, but it’s not. It was real. That’s the problem.”
Both organized events drew a diverse crowd, both in terms of race and age. There were families, older people, and folks in wheelchairs.
But as that peaceful demonstration ended, groups of mostly younger people — black and white — began flooding back toward City Hall, and words gave way to actions. Vandals spray-painted slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” on businesses along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and farther east, near the Convention Center.
A crowd gathered near Broad and Vine Streets and soon masked young men began spray-painting and attacking a Pennsylvania State Police SUV. Within minutes, it was in flames. Officers redirected traffic and tried to keep the crowd at bay.
A much larger group gathered in front of the Municipal Services Building, in front of the statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whose often-contentious tenure as police commissioner was a source of controversy. For at least 30 minutes, demonstrators spray-painted it — one with the word PIG — and tried to topple or set it aflame, as dozens of officers stood watch behind a barricade blocking the entrance to the government building.
Philadelphia police warned residents to stay out of Center City and said that they would not tolerate vandalism. “The demonstrators exercising their first amendment rights at City Hall and the Art Museum did do peacefully,” the police tweeted. “However, since that time, others have convened in Center City and are committing criminal acts, including vandalism."
Around 5:30, two police cars were engulfed in flames near City Hall. Onlookers cheered as the gas tanks of the cars exploded.
Windows were smashed and items removed from the Foot Locker on Chestnut Street, as well as H&M, Square 1682, Marathon, the Vans store, Ubiq, T-Mobile, Doc Martens, Champion, and Steve Madden, and Philly Runner.
As police pushed to regain control of a badly looted Chestnut Street block by block, officers moved toward 17th Street, cornering looters with boxes and clothes under their arms.
“Got a receipt for that?” one yelled toward a young man before knocking the shoeboxes out from under his arms. “No you don’t, because the stores are closed.”
A police car along Chestnut Street had a smashed window, and another had anarchist symbols spray-painted on it, and almost every window at the Wells Fargo on Chestnut was broken.
The looted Starbucks outside City Hall was set on fire as protesters recorded the growing blaze with their cellphones.
After demonstrators broke windows in City Hall and spray-painted outside walls, police officers moved the crowd away from the building. Police cleared much of the plaza in Dilworth Park, some holding bikes to push back the crowd.
About a dozen SEPTA transit officers confronted protesters on Chestnut Street. Protesters threw bottles and trash at them. Among the detritus in the middle of Chestnut between 17th and 18th were an overturned piano, a fake tree, and a mannequin torso.
A bicycle police officer was hospitalized in stable condition after he was struck at Seventh and Chestnut Streets as he tried to stop an SUV whose occupants were suspected of looting business, police said. The officer suffered a broken arm; the vehicle left the scene.
Before the curfew took hold, the scene had quieted around City Hall, where protesters had broken out windows and defaced the building with graffiti. About 150 people gathered to listen to speaker Sixx King, who implored whites to support blacks in the fight against police brutality. “White people, we cannot do this alone. We need you,” King said.
As night was falling, a man who delivers food for Uber Eats on his bicycle watched as someone hurled a fire extinguisher into a window of the Anthropologie store at 18th and Walnut Streets.
“This is not for George Floyd,” said the man, an Algerian immigrant who did not give his name. “I’m going home for the night,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
Cameron Niles, who joined the protest at noon and then went off to meet up with friends, said he was surprised when he came back to the vicinity of Broad and Chestnut Streets and saw people carrying looted sneakers.
Niles, who is black, said he believed Floyd’s murder was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the final catalyst for years of anger and frustration toward police. But he had been encouraged by his experience at the protest earlier.
“The day before yesterday, just in this city, there is no way in hell I would have believed that this many people that don’t look like me had good intentions for my life,” he said. “Today, I was so overwhelmed by the different faces I saw in the crowds. It made me happy to be American.”
Speaking at an evening news conference with city clergy and officials State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.) said that people who caused the destruction caused a distraction from Floyd’s death.
“And all of you who truly believe that we need to be calling attention to the injustices that were done," he said, “what you need to do is continue to peacefully protest, but do not engage in activity that will allow others to change the narrative.”
Contributing to this article were staff writers Michaelle Bond, Laura McCrystal, Jeremy Roebuck, Rob Tornoe, Vinny Vella, Pranshu Verna, Sean Collins Walsh, and Aubrey Whelan.