Chanting “blue lives matter” and “U-S-A,” and at times hurling racist insults at a smaller group of Black Lives Matter protesters, hundreds of police supporters gathered Thursday outside a union hall where Vice President Mike Pence told officers that he and President Donald Trump “have your back.”
Tensions were palpable outside the nondescript FOP Lodge 5 headquarters, and at times the exchanges were as heated as the sultry summer evening. But no physical clashes were evident as a phalanx of on-duty police kept watch, and no arrests were reported.
One group chanted at the 40 or so protesters: “Why do you kill each other?” One man called out, “Your life doesn’t matter.” Another one physically threatened the group, while still others shouted litanies of derogatory comments such as “get a job” and “take a shower.”
As Pence was concluding his speech, police supporters outside the building recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang “God Bless America.” In response, protesters took a knee — which has become a universal symbol evoking the death of George Floyd, killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck — and raised their fists.
“God bless Black America?” protester Melissa Robbins shouted back at the police supporters. “When they take off the blue shirt, do you care about the Black officers then?”
“I really believe there is another civil war coming. The two sides are just farther apart,” said Ray Wisniewski, of Port Richmond, who was wearing a shirt deriding Mayor Jim Kenney as “real crumb bum.”
Wisniewski, who said he has friends who are Philadelphia police officers, supports the Trump administration because he believes it will take a hard-line approach to civil unrest and oppose efforts to defund police departments.
Into the evening, protesters and police supporters exchanged angry words from across metal barricades and lines of bike cops on either side of the union hall’s driveway.
Meanwhile, about 10 men wearing black-and-yellow shirts that identified them as the Proud Boys, a far-right, self-described “Western chauvinist” group, arrived and shouted at the protesters, “All lives matter!”
A few of the Black men answered back, but no physical confrontations ensued.
Many of the pro-police group wore “Bologna Strong” T-shirts in support of Philadelphia Police Inspector Joseph Bologna, who was suspended from the force last month. He has been charged with assaulting a protester during demonstrations that swept the city and the country following Floyd’s death.
Bologna, who declined to discuss his dismissal or the charges against him, was among those who attended Pence’s speech.
Earlier in the day, Pence encountered protesters in Malvern, when he arrived for a roundtable discussion on reopening the economy at the Rajant Corp., a wireless-technology firm.
Dozens of Trump supporters and some opponents lined the driveway leading to the Rajant building, holding “Make America Great Again” signs.
Meanwhile, a group gathered outside the Red Lion building in Northeast Philadelphia to await Pence’s visit there. They wore shirts supporting Bologna and calling for the impeachment of District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“I think we all want racial justice right now,” said Gloria Valentino, who was holding a Trump-Pence sign with two American flags. “We need to stop looking at people’s color and look at their character.”
She said her late brother, a Philadelphia police officer, was killed in the line of duty in 1989.
“I support the police and law and order,” Valentino said. “Ninety-nine percent are good family people. They’re not robots. They’re fathers and mothers.”
Inside the union hall, Erin Hellyer was sitting a few rows from the stage.
“The last few weeks for my family personally, because my brother-in-law was in the front lines, was very stressful,” Hellyer said. “We were scared for him and all police.”
“The disrespect for law enforcement today is scary,” she said. “There’s Black cops, there’s Asian cops, there’s white cops, no matter your race, your religion, people of all backgrounds become police officers for a reason and to me that’s what America stands for.”
Around 7:30 p.m., most of the Trump and police supporters dissipated from the gathering near the street and many headed into the FOP’s “Back the Blue” after-party. At the party, some police and supporters stood outside, while many gathered near the bar, drinking beer, eating, and talking, a few men wearing Proud Boys shirts and hats.