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Violent extremist or dedicated activist? A battle rages to define the demonstrator charged with torching Philly police cars

Friends and family members say the Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal they know bears little resemblance to the caricatures drawn by extremist sympathizers and detractors online - or the portrait of a premeditated arsonist described by prosecutors in court.

This image from social media contained in an indictment appears to show a woman, whom the FBI has identified as Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, throwing a flaming object at a police cruiser during protests of the death of George Floyd on May 30.
This image from social media contained in an indictment appears to show a woman, whom the FBI has identified as Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, throwing a flaming object at a police cruiser during protests of the death of George Floyd on May 30.Read moreU.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

More than two weeks after FBI agents arrested Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal — the Philadelphia woman accused of torching two police cars during protests outside City Hall — her case has emerged as a cause célèbre on the fringes of both sides of the debate over policing in the United States.

Anarchist websites and zines have held her up as a martyr for their cause, while far-right message boards have picked apart her background, labeling her — with no evidence — as a member of antifa.

A GoFundMe account launched by her brother to pay legal expenses drew more than $28,000 from across the country in its first few days, only to be removed later in response to what he described as “internet trolls.”

But despite the attention Blumenthal’s case has received online, friends and family members say the woman they know bears little resemblance to the caricatures drawn by those sympathizers and detractors — or the portrait of a premeditated arsonist described by prosecutors in court.

In dozens of letters recently submitted to the judge handling her case, they described the 33-year-old massage therapist as a dedicated community volunteer and advocate — a woman who has devoted a considerable amount of time and money toward serving those struggling with drug addiction, homelessness, disability, and sexual abuse.

A graduate of William Penn Charter School and an avid photographer whose work has been exhibited at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, she’s more likely, they said, to pay out of her own pockets to help others than to dedicate herself toward violence.

“This young woman is an asset to her community,” wrote Lauren Marie Miller, a Navy veteran who met Blumenthal in 2013 while working on a community garden project in North Philadelphia. “She is not a martyr. She is not an example to be made.… She is a lover and defender of those in need with less power, those who have been wronged and hurt.”

Another wrote: “I have never heard her advocate for organized violence of any kind.”

And yet, a government lawyer argued in recent court filings, the proof of her danger to the community “is not just clear and convincing — it is on videotape.”

FBI agents identified Blumenthal from TV news footage of a masked woman hurling a flaming piece of a police barricade into an SUV parked outside City Hall, as thousands gathered May 30 in outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

With little more to go on than a distinctive peace-sign tattoo on her right forearm and a T-shirt agents say was only sold in one shop on the online marketplace Etsy, investigators followed a trail Blumenthal left over the internet for years to conclude that she was the woman depicted in the video.

She remains at the Federal Detention Center in Center City, held without bail, and faces a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence if convicted.

» READ MORE: The FBI used a Philly protester’s Etsy profile, LinkedIn, and other internet history to charge her with setting police cars ablaze

Attorney General William Barr has urged U.S. attorneys across the country to prioritize prosecuting protesters involved in acts of violence or property destruction, and has characterized those crimes not as eruptions of outrage from otherwise peaceful demonstrators but as the work of a “witches’ brew” of extremist groups.

In court, federal authorities have offered no evidence linking Blumenthal to any such organization. Her online presence offers little to suggest such affiliations either, despite the outsize role her internet history played in the investigation leading to her arrest.

Many friends who wrote letters on her behalf have actively supported the protests, the police abolitionist movement, and socialist politics on their own social media accounts. But none appear to have publicly called for escalating demonstrations toward violence.

“I myself have been on the front lines of calling for more racial and economic justice in the city and country,” wrote Jennifer Turnbull, a local artist and a friend. “Lore is a part of that change. She is a part of our civic duty as residents, artists, government workers, health care workers, etc. to always fight for the rights of the marginalized populations of our city.”

Some who have rallied to Blumenthal’s side have already paid a stiff price for their support.

Allison Herens, a former harm reduction coordinator with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, was fired last month after writing to support Blumenthal’s release on city letterhead.

Her missive opened by stating she was “speaking on behalf of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health” — a claim Herens was not authorized to make, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office said.

The letter went on to describe Blumenthal’s “genuine dedication” to the less fortunate — a sentiment echoed throughout nearly all of the letters submitted.

Some described Blumenthal as the only person to stick by their side as they battled illness or depression. Others noted the zeal with which she has committed to improvement projects in her Germantown neighborhood, food distribution drives for the hungry, and efforts to distribute protective gear and supplies to the medically vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I hope this court can deescalate this situation happening right now and allow for there to be a balanced understanding for who Lore is and how she contributed generously and committedly to our city,” Turnbull wrote.

Blumenthal and her supporters face an uphill climb.

» READ MORE: The Philly protester tracked down through Etsy and accused of setting cop cars on fire was ordered jailed until trial

U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II held a hearing Wednesday over videoconference to decide whether to overturn a lower court decision to jail Blumenthal until trial. The specific charge she faces puts the onus on the defense to prove she is not an ongoing danger to the community.

Blumenthal’s lawyer, Paul Hetznecker, balked at the fact that his client remains incarcerated while police officers accused of murder have been granted bail in state court.

“Here we have a property crime,” he said of Blumenthal’s case. “Not to denigrate the seriousness of it, but it’s a property crime weighed against a lifetime of commitment by Ms. Blumenthal for caring for others.”

Thomas Perricone, chief of the national security unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, maintained that despite the “well-meaning intentions” of Blumenthal’s supporters, she is not as idealistic and naive as some would make her out to be.

The fires she started, he said, could have injured or killed any of the thousands of protesters packed around City Hall that day. And when agents arrived to arrest her two weeks later, she resisted. They allege she smashed her phone and removed its SIM card with a fork in the minutes before her arrest.

“I do not doubt the sincerity of those letters that describe her as gentle and kind to those people she cares about,” Perricone said. “But what we know is that this is a person who will engage in violence if she feels motivated to do so.”

Jones is still weighing his decision. But he raised the prospect that he might order Blumenthal released under house arrest at the home of her mother, who sat through Wednesday’s hearing, quietly weeping at times.

As Jones concluded the hearing without a ruling, he turned toward Blumenthal’s mother to apologize for the delay.

“Of course,” she replied. “There’s hope. I trust you.”