I kept thinking how jarringly, beautifully blue the sky was — an odd setting for a day where anguish, fear, and rage spilled onto Philadelphia’s streets over the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man killed at the hands of police.
As anger again erupted into chaos in the city Monday, I volunteered to cover the protesters and the police, and did so for hours, moving with thousands from Eighth and Race to 22nd and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The crowd was vocal, angry, but I saw no violence, though city officials said some protesters threw rocks at officers and others rocked a state trooper’s vehicle.
Growing larger, the throng neared the Vine Street Expressway, still chanting. At about 5 p.m., police fired tear gas into the crowd adjacent to where I was standing — one of several releases in the general area. I was far enough away that I didn’t hear or see exactly what triggered the gas, but I did absorb some of the irritant. My eyes stung badly, but I was able to keep reporting.
I stayed on the scene until the crowd dispersed shortly after 6 p.m., when a citywide curfew went into effect, then began the long walk back to my car, parked near The Inquirer’s offices at 801 Market St. I passed dozens of police officers as I walked; one stopped me and asked where I was going. He asked me to keep my press pass prominently displayed, and I clipped my badge to my T-shirt, making sure my name and photo were easily visible.
A few hundred yards from City Hall, I noticed that buses were lined up, presumably to haul away people who had been arrested. I kept walking, intending to round the perimeter of the building to continue heading east on Market. I snapped a photo of the buses, and an officer whirled around, told me I couldn’t be there.
Without signs, barricades, or prior directions, there was no way for me to know I was in the wrong spot, but I quickly turned around, intending to head around City Hall in the other direction. Less than a minute later, two other officers walked toward me. They put my hands behind my back, took the helmet I was wearing off of my head, took my backpack away.
As calmly as I could manage, I told them I was a reporter, nodding at my press pass. Journalists are considered essential employees, permitted to be out past curfew if they’re working, and I reminded the officers of that. They fitted plastic handcuffs that felt like oversized zip ties to my wrists anyway.
The officers led me by both arms to a waiting bus. I was the first inside; more than 20 women joined me eventually; one crying as she was led in. Multiple people, including a journalist from the Wilmington News-Journal, said they were also walking or riding home when they were detained. Some shouted “Black Lives Matter!” as they boarded.
The bus ride to the 22nd District Headquarters at 17th and Montgomery was hot and uncomfortable. My hands and shoulders ached behind my back, and I knew my family — including two young sons — would worry that my steady stream of text messages and tweets had stopped abruptly. It was a profoundly strange moment for me, a rule follower, a person who never once earned so much as a detention at school.
The sheriff’s officers who transported us were friendly at first. Then, as some of my fellow passengers began confronting them with chants about racial justice, but also with curses and insults, the chatter stopped. The lack of functioning air-conditioning began to get to some people; one woman began suffering an asthma attack.
Passengers began banging on the grill separating us from the officers, demanding an inhaler, a medic, help for our fellow detainee. The woman vomited. It took several minutes for officials to get her off of the bus and to paramedics. Later, another passenger said she had to use the bathroom urgently; no one came to her aid, and she urinated on the bus. Still, my fellow detainees agreed: they would be back protesting Tuesday.
Officers told us we would all be issued citations but would be free by the end of the night. I was shaky, but I knew that as a white woman, I would probably be fine, and I knew that for many others around the country, that wasn’t always the case.
Eventually, I managed to wriggle one hand into a position where I could use my smartwatch to text my husband and my editor. I was arrested, I told them, but I was OK. Eventually, a lawyer for The Inquirer made contact with city officials, and soon after, an officer walked onto our bus and led me out, along with the other journalist.
Officials told us they had made a mistake detaining us journalists. We were never read our rights or charged, but we were free to go, and given our belongings back more than two hours after they were taken away.
I was shell-shocked. I still am. I am a born and bred Philadelphian, an Inquirer journalist for the past two decades. I’ve covered shootings and protests, fires and funerals, calamities of all kinds, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like what I saw Monday. I’m still not sure how to explain it to my children.