A powerful cry for justice rose from the streets of Philadelphia on Saturday, as thousands marched peacefully across a shut down Center City to demand an end to racism and to declare that Black Lives Matter.
Massive numbers of people converged on the streets, sidewalks, and lawns around the majestic Art Museum steps, then moved across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to City Hall, the site of weeklong, pitched confrontations between police and protesters. At one point, fists in the air and signs held high, people turned to one another and loudly pledged, I will fight for you.
“From Michael Brown to George Floyd to Emmett Till, there’s a lineage of violence,” said one marcher, Elliott Webster, 28, of Philadelphia. “More than ever, people are starting to wake up.”
A dynamic display of unity marked the eighth straight day of demonstrations in the city and the region to protest the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Amid sweltering temperatures, a shaky calm prevailed in a city that last week saw stores looted and buildings burned in unrest reminiscent of late-1960s America.
The area around City Hall turned into a militarized zone Saturday, with police supported by national guardsmen carrying M4 Carbine rifles and backed by tons of vehicles and equipment. Most of Center City was closed to traffic in anticipation of the crowd, and Philadelphia remained under a nightly curfew, to be lifted at 6 a.m. Sunday.
Across the country, Floyd’s death has unleashed decades of frustration borne from the abuse of African Americans by police authorities. Demonstrations have occurred in every state, with no indication when they might conclude.
People of all ages and ethnicities marched Saturday during the largest Philadelphia demonstration since Floyd’s death. Other large protests took place in cities across the country, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and in San Francisco, where marchers closed the Golden Gate Bridge.
Philadelphia police reported that 767 people had been arrested in the last week, including 493 for violating curfew or dispersal orders, and 236 for looting or burglary. Twenty-seven officers have been injured and one remains hospitalized.
City officials issued no report on how many demonstrators may have been hurt.
“I’m an African American woman who has experienced racism. The earliest was at 8 years old,” said Francine Tucker, dean of students at Deep Roots Charter School. “I want my students to see I’m fighting for them. I want to ensure they have a brighter future.”
In the city where the nation’s Founders guaranteed rights to all who constitute “We The People” — rights that for many Americans remain unfulfilled — the march carried the weight of history. And demand for change.
The divisive statue of former Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank L. Rizzo was gone from outside the Municipal Services Building, and the Rizzo mural in South Philadelphia was on its way out. District Attorney Larry Krasner announced he would file felony criminal charges against a Philadelphia police supervisor seen on video footage viciously beating a Temple University student with a baton.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw spoke to young demonstrators gathered near the statue of Octavius Catto, the great post-Civil-War civil rights leader, saying she needed to hear their voices.
“The only way for us in leadership … to find out exactly what needs to be done is to come to the people, and hear from the people what we’re supposed to be doing,” she told a gathering organized by black fraternities and sororities. “I’m here not only in solidarity but in collaboration, in the spirit of partnership, in the spirit of fellowship.”
She and Mayor Jim Kenney joined demonstrators there in taking a knee, which has become a universal gesture of protest against racial inequality.
“This week has been humbling. It has shown me — someone who considers themselves to be progressive and an ally — that there is a great deal more for me to learn,” the mayor tweeted on Saturday. “Black voices have been silenced for too long. We must hear those voices and act on their demands."
Four Philadelphia City Council members — Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym, and Isaiah Thomas — called on Saturday for police to cease using tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators now and in the future.
“The police thought if they gassed us, if they beat us, if they imprisoned us, that this movement would stop,” Eugene Puryear, of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, told the crowd at the Art Museum. “This movement will not stop.”
As marchers reached City Hall they were met by rows of police officers and National Guard troops.
“Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here,” protesters chanted.
Metal barriers separated one side from the other. Philadelphia police on horseback arrived at nearby I-676, causing momentary alarm.
“What are they going to do, trample people?” asked one protester.
The scene near City Hall was at once tense and celebratory.
“Is the military allowed to use tear gas on the field of war?” a man with a bullhorn yelled at police. “No, they are not!”
Thirty yards away, several hundred people broke into dance, performing the Cupid Shuffle. Down the block, a group of a hundred played basketball in the plaza next to TD Bank at Penn Center, using a hoop that young Philadelphians have been lugging to protests to help break the tension.
Dozens of organizations, from Queers for Black Lives Matter to the Salvation Army, took part in the day. Vendors hawked “George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” shirts on the Parkway, the samba-reggae group Batala Philadelphia pumped up the crowds, and signs proclaimed that everything from Jesus to socialism was the answer for the nation’s ills.
A wedding party broke out, as bride and groom Kerry Anne and Michael Gordon joined the march in their matrimonial finest.
Protesters shared bottled water, bananas, and Clif Bars on a Parkway lined with portable toilets. Some theaters along Broad Street opened their lobbies to offer bathrooms and water, protesters said.
Everywhere, people discussed hard questions of racism and classism, and swore they would work for change.
A sidewalk birthday shrine emerged for EMT Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 on Friday, but was shot to death by police two months ago in Louisville, Ky., when officers broke down her door in an attempted drug sting. The anger and sorrow over her death have become part of the worldwide outcry against police violence.
Medics moved through the Parkway crowd offering sunscreen and protective masks, as people marched on amid a coronavirus pandemic that is now blamed for killing more than 109,000 Americans.
Theodore Gay-Hall, age 7, held a sign that spoke to the fears of every African American parent: “When do I go from cute to dangerous?”
“We fear for him,” said his mother, Tara Hall, 41, of Westampton, Burlington County. “With everything that’s going on with police, we fear for his safety.”
Hundreds of demonstrators turned out in Bristol Township, Bucks County, while dozens took to the street in Delaware County. In Ardmore, protesters filled both sides of Lancaster Avenue outside the Lower Merion Township building, and in Atlantic City, demonstrators declared the nation’s system of policing an “imminent danger to the American citizen.”
In Kensington, a small group gathered on Frankford and Allegheny Avenues, chanting Floyd’s name as they marched under the El and past National Guard troops.
“Everyone is saying this year has been crazy — I think this year was more about change,” said Jameara Austin, 24, of Kensington. “And sometimes things have to get destroyed for a change to happen.”
At F Street, the group paused in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck. That officer has been charged with murder, and three others who were there charged with aiding and abetting murder.
“Bless this simple march,” the Rev. Liam Murphy prayed. “Let it be one simple sign that leads to a little bit of change in our hearts, neighborhoods, and world.”
Elyse Castillo and her husband brought their three children from Manayunk to Center City to experience a moment “they’ll read about in history books.” As a family they have discussed systemic racism and the importance of donating money to the movement.
“We’re here today to show them that Black Lives Matter,” Castillo said.
The march ended shortly before 3 p.m. as demonstrators completed their route and returned to the Art Museum.
“We need justice,” said Johnson Salley, 19, of North Philadelphia. “We need love. We need a change.”
Contributing to this article were staff writers Anna Orso, Laura McCrystal, Ellie Rushing, Aubrey Whelan, Oona Goodin-Smith, Vinny Vella, Amy S. Rosenberg, and Sarah Gantz.