On a day when black leaders called for police reforms, questions were raised about law-enforcement double standards, and the city was very much a political battleground in the presidential campaign, more than a thousand demonstrators gathered, marched, and danced peacefully in Philadelphia for several hours on Tuesday to protest the killing of George Floyd.
In a stark and beyond-more-than-welcome contrast to the chaos of the previous three days, they chanted and sang and even dribbled basketballs around City Hall, in Old City, in West Philadelphia, and near a police station in Fishtown, where an ad hoc group armed with baseball bats had appeared the day before. Some protesters and police shook hands and knelt together.
“This is healing for a lot of people,” said 21-year-old Justin Nsaih. “To see people who look like us and who don’t look like us fighting for one cause makes us feel like what we do isn’t going unseen.”
Already struggling for some semblance of normality as the debilitating coronavirus pandemic continues — underscored by perhaps the most surreal election day in Pennsylvania history — the city and other towns in the region since Saturday have been rocked by widespread looting, arsons, and skirmishes with police in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Floyd, an African American, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes. The incident has become a rallying point for protests over police abuse and racism, and kneeling a universal symbol.
Since Floyd’s death last week, law enforcement officials in more than 40 cities have made more than 7,000 arrests for charges including burglary, arson, aggravated assault, rioting, and looting, according to CBS News.
One person was arrested late Tuesday afternoon in Philadelphia, and police reported 703 arrests since widespread protests and looting erupted in the city on Saturday. Looting also had rippled into other towns in the region since Saturday, including Upper Darby and Upper Merion Township, home of the King of Prussia Mall, and Atlantic City.
Criticizing President Donald Trump, who had called for crackdowns on looters and had described governors as “weak,” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the demonstrations were “a wake-up call for our nation.” Biden, uncontested, won the postponed Pennsylvania primary Tuesday, in which some of the masked voters in the region had long waits.
He spoke at City Hall, hours before a crowd had gathered in that area for a protest on a September-like June afternoon when a plane over Center City pulled a sky banner reading: “Bless the peacemakers for they shall inherit earth" a paraphrase of the famous beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.
District Attorney Larry Krasner greeted demonstrators as police stood nearby with batons at the ready. “Protesting is not a crime," Krasner said. "We are not going to charge you for protesting,” But, he added, “if we see vigilante-type behavior, beating people up, if we see crimes or the illegal possession of guns ... we are going to charge and prosecute that.”
By all accounts, that was not happening Tuesday as groups gathered for more than 10 hours. Protests on the Main Line, in Cherry Hill, and at the Shore also were peaceful, as was a march on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia.
“We did it the right way,” said Tymair Johnson, 22, who with 20-year-old Sam Sessoms, a Pennsylvania State University basketball player, led the group in chanting Floyd’s name and “No justice, no peace, reform we need.” They dribbled basketballs as they marched, and said they were supported by police officers.
Not far away, at 38th and Walnut Streets, hundreds of protesters who had marched from Center City stopped in front of the University of Pennsylvania President’s House and knelt silently for nine minutes.
Southwest Philadelphia resident Lauren Coursey, 26, who said she had marched nine miles on Tuesday, suggested that protesters need to yank attention from the ugliness of recent days. “The rest of society [needs to] know we’re not here for a ruckus, not here to break things," she said. "We’re here to cause attention and justice for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that she was concerned her own department was sending mixed messages.
She said she did not approve of police officers’ appearing to condone vigilante activity in Fishtown, even posing for photos with some members of the bat-wielding group.
She also said that she had watched video that appeared to show officers Monday pulling down the masks of kneeling protesters on the Vine Street Expressway and pepper-spraying them in the face. Mayor Jim Kenney said such behavior was “totally unacceptable.”
Kenney expressed his exasperation on Tuesday, saying, “Listen, I hate this entire thing. I wish none of this ever started, and we’re stuck with the issue of every day something happens we may not be prepared for.”
But signs were emerging that the regional nightmare might be waning, if not ending, and that officials were looking for ways to prevent recurrences.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said Tuesday that for the first time in 20 years, the state will update its guidelines governing the use of force and will move to require a statewide licensing program for all officers.
Outlaw told the 6,500 members of her department in an email that all uses of force must be reported via police radio in addition to a written report after the fact.
A group of black leaders presented their proposals for making changes in the department, including asking Kenney to end stop-and-frisk tactics, among other measures.
“It can’t just be about telling people to go home,” said Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.), who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “We also have to give solutions so that all of the things that have been happening in our community stop happening.”
Coursey, who was exhausted after all that walking, had exhorted her fellow marchers through a megaphone, although she wasn’t a protest organizer. She advised everyone get home before the 8:30 p.m. curfew for their own safety, after the police crackdowns that had marked the days before.
She said the day represented “a beautiful moment.”
“We need to have a beautiful ending,” she said, turning for home.