Amid pain and powerful protests, Philadelphia still found a way to be Philly. Here are 10 of those moments.
What makes this city great has always been the people.
If you love Philadelphia, at some point in the last two weeks your heart has been broken.
Perhaps it was when you heard the anguished cries of protesters who took to city streets to demand justice for the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — or when black people shared their own stories of racism and police brutality in Philadelphia.
Maybe it was when you saw stores some Philadelphians took a lifetime building looted beyond recognition, leaving their dreams shattered, after the coronavirus pandemic had already taken so much.
Or was it when you watched as police gassed peaceful protesters, trapped on I-676, with nowhere to escape?
Never has our nickname — the City of Brotherly Love — felt so hollow.
But in the middle of it all, there were moments Philadelphia still found a way to be Philly. Even as the National Guard descended on the city, giving it the unnerving feel of a police state, the spirit of Philadelphia grew stronger than ever.
Because what makes this city great has always been the people. And when the people of Philadelphia are challenged, they always rise to the occasion, with their Philly spirit fully intact.
From tension-breaking scenes to inspirational ones, here are 10 of the most Philly moments of Philadelphia’s protests:
As car fires raged around City Hall on May 30, a fully suited Batman emerged from the smoke unscathed, in a surreal scene straight out of The Dark Knight.
“He’s here!” one man screamed, as the crowd burst into cheers.
The Batman was Bob Gable, 43, a father of two from Bensalem with a $12,000 Batsuit, who’s better known as Bucks County Batman.
Gable said he went to the protest to “help in any way that I could,” to hand out water and to listen to young protesters.
The response, he said, was “amazing.”
“Everyone there showed me so much love," Gable said. “I was not expecting that."
During protests the following day, an unidentified man dressed as the Joker — complete with face paint, green hair, and a three-piece suit — pulled up outside City Hall across from the Municipal Services Building on a purple-and-green motorcycle.
A 29-year-old Center City resident at the protest, who asked not to be identified, said the Joker rode about a foot in front of a line of mounted police officers guarding the Rizzo statue, looped back around to the crowd, and threw up his middle finger — with both hands — at police.
“Seeing this guy flout their authority brought a little levity and hope to a crowd that might have otherwise started to feel like we were living in a police state,” the protester said.
A new chapter
Among the signs and banners held high during the Black Lives Matter protests, Harriett’s Bookshop owner Jeannine A. Cook and her mom, son, and his girlfriend held up something else — copies of a biography of Harriet Tubman and the autobiography of Malcolm X to give away.
Last week, Cook told my colleague Brandon Harden that she’d already given out at least 100 books at protests in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, as well as in front of her Fishtown shop, and donations have been pouring in to support her project.
“It’s been so organic,” she said. “We go wherever we know there’s a march or wherever we know there’s action happening."
P is for protest
Ever since video of a man in an Elmo suit dancing with a drum line as they passed a massive scrapyard fire in Kensington went viral in 2018, various versions of Elmo have shown up at different events around the city, making him as much a part of Philly lore as Gritty.
During protests on May 30, an unidentified man in an Elmo mask — who is not the drumline Elmo and has no known connections to any of the Elmos that came before him — appeared in Center City and danced in front of a burning trash can. While many online thought the protester was bringing to life the long-running “Elmo Rise” meme, Philadelphians knew better, and corrected the internet by letting it know this was a “Philly Elmo.”
At subsequent marches throughout the city, protesters held up signs featuring Philly Elmo that read: “Philly Elmo for Mayor” and “Stand for something,” furthering the legend of this unofficial Philadelphia Muppet.
BYOB (bring your own broom)
As Venise Whitaker, 45, and twin sisters Marion and Jen Leary, 42, watched the news of looting across Center City on May 30, they created a social media campaign dubbed #BringABroomPHL, and urged citizens to bring their brooms and help clean up the following day.
And Philly showed up. Every day citizens joined sanitation workers and shop owners to spruce up Center City.
When looting spread to West Philly, North Philly, and Kensington in the following days, subsequent #BringABroomPHL cleanups were organized by the trio and others, including one led by the North Broad Street Renaissance. Other cleanups grew organically in communities throughout the city as well.
“Philly is an incredible city of caring, committed people,” said Marion Leary, a Northern Liberties resident and director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. “Philadelphians love our city and I believe are always willing to show up and help each other out.”
The Leary sisters have been attending protests since they were teens in Philadelphia. Marion Leary took her 14-year-old daughter to several Black Lives Matter protests over the last two weeks as well.
“More important than folks showing up for the bring a broom, though, is how many people are showing up and providing support and solidarity around the Black Lives Matter movements here in Philly and around the world,” she said.
Traveling off court
In a city where sports can be a uniting force, Stephania Ergemlidze and her friends Jaquill Shackelford and Khalil Gardener decided to bring a full-size basketball hoop around to the protests to do just that — unite people and break the tension.
They set the hoop up at various locations along protest routes and put up a cardboard sign nearby that read: “I’ve always used basketball to try to bring people together. Today I feel is a day we need that most! I have sanitizer if you’d like to play!”
“We were able to play with police officers, protesters, pedestrians. People were joining us on our walks, following us around," she said. "That was pretty cool. We had every race pretty much join us.”
Lone Star chair
When Jason Dobson, 37, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., got a call from a friend on June 1 asking if he knew anybody who could help board up stores damaged by looting in Philadelphia, he was more than happy to help.
“I’m Jamaican and Puerto Rican, so I wanted to participate," he said. “I wanted to go out and patch everything up with respect and power in regards to the movement.”
What Dobson said he saw was “complete and utter chaos.”
“It was a hard sight to see,” he said.
As Dobson and his crew approached a Rent-A-Center in North Philly to board it up, he peeked inside and saw the only things that looters had left behind were an end table, a lamp, and a Dallas Cowboys recliner.
“We all busted up laughing. As tension-filled as the air was, for this to be able to make us laugh, there was something about that moment," he said. “It was just so Philly.”
Dobson documented it on video and shared it on Instagram, in a post that’s since gone viral.
The art of the protest
From impassioned speeches to artistic signs, the unbound creativity of Philadelphians has been on full display during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
This was especially poignant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where on June 5 a protester wrote the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s song “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” in colored chalk on the steps of the museum.
“They should spray a clear coat paint over it and save it as an exhibit of modern political art,” one Twitter user said.
The following day, during a massive Black Lives Matter protest that began at the Art Museum, someone hung a sign around the Rocky statue outside that read: “NO JUSTICE? NO PEACE!!!”
As thousands of protesters marched down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on June 6, Kerry Anne and Michael Gordon stepped out of the Logan Hotel, she in her wedding gown and he in his tuxedo, and joined the protest to thundering applause.
Their “first look” before their wedding — among thousands of cheering protesters — was a beautiful and powerful moment that resonated throughout Philadelphia and the world. Outlets from Vogue to CNN covered the story.
“It was the most empowering thing to be there at that moment,” Michael Gordon told Vogue. "The narrative of love, of black love, doesn’t always get put out there. But that’s what [the movement] is about, that’s what we’re looking for. Black love is a beautiful thing. Black love exists. Black love is powerful.”
Dancing in the street
On June 6, as one large group of protesters confronted police and the National Guard standing behind a metal barricade at City Hall, nearby another group sang songs like Tupac’s “Changes" and danced together to the “Cupid Shuffle,” making the scene both tense and celebratory.
My colleague, Ellie Rushing, spoke with Lasean Johnson, 25, of North Philly, who brought his speaker to the protest in a stroller and supplied the music.
“The whole point of bringing the speaker out was to diffuse a lot of the tension in the air,” he said.
Skate against hate
Hundreds of skateboarders traveled together from LOVE Park down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on June 7 together as part of a Black Lives Matter protest co-organized by Tee Richardson, 27, of West Oak Lane.
“A lot of the skateboarders, we don’t really exercise our voices a lot with issues outside of the skate community, but this is something everyone was in agreement on, that we needed to be active in some way,” she said. “We were all feeling pretty raw about what was going on.”
Richardson, a black woman, said there were rumors that the skateboard protest was organized by only white men, which she, as one of the organizers, wants to dispel. She said people of all races skateboard and attended the protest, which did not have a name.
“We didn’t name it. We were just some skaters from Philly who wanted to ask for justice,” she said. “We just want to be heard, just like everybody else.”