Armed with shields, smoke bombs and banners touting “Reclaim America,” a white supremacist group marched through Center City late Saturday into early Sunday, clashing with a few counterprotesters before leaving as abruptly as it arrived.
A Philadelphia police spokesperson said Sunday that there were no arrests or reports of vandalism from a demonstration by Patriot Front. The group of about 200 marched down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward Penn’s Landing, where members had parked a few rented Penske trucks.
Still, organizations monitoring extremist groups and hate speech are troubled by the appearance of a large contingent of Patriot Front members in such a public manner on Independence Day weekend. They say the group — which traces its roots to the violent 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Va. — has become increasingly active in Pennsylvania in recent months, and is staging actions such as Saturday night’s march in Philadelphia in an attempt to spread its message and bolster its ranks.
Shira Goodman, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia chapter, said Patriot Front has embarked on an aggressive propaganda campaign, distributing leaflets, posting stickers, and spraying graffiti throughout the Philadelphia suburbs and Lehigh Valley, as well as conducting flash mob-like meetings with their members that they later post on social media to use as a recruitment tool.
Last month, she said, the group defaced a mural memorializing George Floyd in Olney, and later claimed responsibility for it on their private message boards.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’re here. We’re nearby,’” Goodman said Sunday. “The danger is always there. We know these groups have become more emboldened in recent years, and that things that have been in the shadows of the internet have come off-line.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, in a statement Sunday, said that he was “personally appalled and disgusted” that Patriot Front marched through Center City, adding that the group’s beliefs have no place in Philadelphia.
“White supremacy and racism are among the greatest scourges this country has faced since its founding,” Kenney said. “While we respect everyone’s right to exercise free speech, our administration stands against everything these groups represent.”
The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center have reported that members of Patriot Front promote “racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance” through their stated goal of returning the country to the “ethnic and cultural origins” of their European ancestors. Its members frequently push the ideology of “taking America back.”
And though the group was founded in Texas, it has active chapters throughout the country. Though the ADL’s investigation into the episode was ongoing Sunday, Goodman said it initially appeared that some of the group’s founding members had traveled to Philadelphia from Texas for the march.
Given the holiday and hour of the march, Center City was mostly empty. However, the few bystanders who did encounter the group of Patriot Front members argued with them, in some cases leading to reported blows.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a writer, organizer and activist, recounted being among 10 to 15 counterprotesters who followed the Patriot Front members, shouting at the group members that they were not welcome in Philadelphia.
Muhammad said the group was entirely white men dressed identically in khakis, black T-shirts, white face masks, and combat boots, carrying hard plastic shields that read “Patriot Front.” Muhammad said the group began tossing smoke bombs and, under cover of the smoke, hit and kicked counterprotesters. Muhammad told of being hit in the knee with a shield during the scrum.
“They were prepared. They were hitting people. ... Trying to get behind you in a group, “ Muhammad said. “Trying to get alongside of you. Trying to separate people.”
Muhammad said Philadelphia police were on the scene but did not intervene as counterprotesters and Patriot Front members fought.
“It’s obvious that, when Black folks and people who are our accomplices and allies organize in the streets, they are met with a different kind of response from police,” Muhammad said.
Eric Gilde was walking home from dinner near Rittenhouse Square with his wife and mother-in-law when he noticed the group. From a distance, he mistook them for a parade celebrating the Fourth of July. Then he heard their chants of “Take America Back.”
“It felt like they were marching in a very energized way,” Gilde said. “I saw nothing violent, but I feel like you could tell that there was a lot of aggression behind what they were doing, and I was happy that we were not close to them.”
Gilde said he and his family then gave the group a wide berth, and rushed home.
“There were women walking a dog that we were chatting with immediately afterward, and they kind of had the same sense of ‘Oh, it does suddenly feel a little less safe right now,’” he said.