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After years of pent-up anger, Philadelphia erupts

It came as no surprise that years of unresolved racial tensions spilled into chaos on Saturday -- or that the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo served as the backdrop.

Demonstrators tried to pull down a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the Municipal Services building in Center City on Saturday.
Demonstrators tried to pull down a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the Municipal Services building in Center City on Saturday.Read moreTyger Williams / The Philadelphia Inquirer

In the early afternoon, hours before the blue sky over City Hall was blotted by plumes of black smoke while Center City businesses were looted, Jamial Hankinson stood near the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a colorful mask on her face and a large white sign in her hand.

She’d scrawled “I’m an angry Black woman!” across the poster board, and as a crowd of thousands amassed Saturday in front of the museum to protest the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands — and knee — of a Minneapolis police officer, Hankinson, a 50-year-old elementary school teacher, explained her pent-up emotions.

“We have every right to be angry, because we live in fear, we raise our children in fear,” she said. “That trauma is in us, and we just pass it on from generation to generation. I’m angry and tired of it.”

The video footage that showed Officer Derek Chauvin press his knee against Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, while Floyd gasped that he couldn’t breathe, has proved to be the tipping point for a country already on edge from a months-long pandemic, and for communities that have spent years protesting police shootings of black civilians and what Mayor Jim Kenney called “America’s original sin of racism.”

» READ MORE: Dozens begin cleaning up Center City destruction, Rizzo statue cleaned

It was little surprise, then, when initially peaceful demonstrations in Philadelphia turned violent later in the day — mirroring scenes from dozens of other U.S. cities — or that the 9-foot statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo would be a focal point.

The first hint that Saturday’s protests would be different than any of the marches that have played out in the city since the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement came shortly before 4 p.m., when demonstrators set fire to a state police SUV and began tagging the Convention Center with graffiti. Traffic on the Vine Street Expressway was stopped.

“I don’t even trust these cops,” LaMont Wilson, 25, of Northeast Philadelphia, said while waiting nearby. “They could come out shooting any moment."

Hundreds of demonstrators migrated to the Municipal Services Building, across from City Hall, and unsurprisingly went about trying to topple the statue of Rizzo, which has served as a racial and political Rorschach test for much of the two decades it has stood looking onto John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

Protesters tried setting fire to the statue, hammering it, and yanking on it with ropes, but the 2,000-pound sculpture didn’t give way. While the Rizzo statue has attracted plenty of attention from vandals and activists in the past, the surrounding landscape this time was more apocalyptic. Two police cruisers and a nearby Starbucks sat engulfed in flames, and people began shattering windows in City Hall before heading west, along Chestnut and Walnut Streets, to set more fires and loot numerous stores.

The Rizzo statue — like Rizzo himself — represents a chapter in the city’s history that still sparks fierce disagreement. Many black residents remember the former mayor and police commissioner as a tyrant who used the police force to punish their communities. Many whites still regard him as a hero. For the last three years, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has pledged to move the statue to another location, but has kicked the deadline for a final decision down the road.

Rizzo’s grandson, Joe Mastronardo, said Saturday that he wasn’t surprised protesters swarmed the statue, but insisted that the critical depictions of his grandfather aren’t true. “The people that I see on screen right now," he said, “they have no idea what they’re talking about."

» READ MORE: As Philly protests descended into chaos, police restraint was no match for volatility

Scuffles occasionally broke out between police and protesters; Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that 13 officers were injured and many were spit on, and pelted with bottles and urine. At least 14 people were arrested.

Officials made cryptic references to “others” and outsiders having joined the protest to escalate tensions and cause more destruction as the afternoon wore on, a claim that leaders have made in other states.

“Unfortunately there are groups of people that come to these things that have no intention of doing anything else other than causing problems,” Charles H. Ramsey, the former Philadelphia police commissioner, said on CNN Saturday night. “They could care less about what took place in Minneapolis. They’re there to cause damage. It’s a small group of people, but they’re there nonetheless.”

During Ramsey’s tenure, the Police Department adopted a bend-don’t-break strategy for protests. Officers wore regular uniforms, not riot gear, and often allowed marches to peter out without having to resort to using tear gas or making violent arrests.

This ability to navigate tense conflicts without fires and looting was a feather in the city’s cap. But after nearly a decade of marches and calls for a change in how minorities are treated by law enforcement, in Minneapolis George Floyd still ended up dead, uttering the same helpless phrase — “I can’t breathe” — as Eric Garner before him.

And so Philadelphia burned on Saturday, and other American cities with it.

Staff writers Jeremy Roebuck and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.