Philly set out to decriminalize protests. Instead, critics say, it’s silencing free speech.
Some protesters say they were kept on hot buses for hours, causing people to urinate on themselves, plead for water, and in one case demand an ambulance — all for a civil citation.
On June 1, after watching a South Philadelphia militia assemble to defend a Pennsport Target store from would-be looters, a small group of neighbors decided they could not allow what they saw as a symbol of white supremacy to stand unchecked.
“To see those people represented in our neighborhood as protecting the neighborhood is not the image other white people in Pennsport want,” said Danny Burke, 33.
So they made signs and went to Target to stand in protest. They remained silent in video clips, even when one Target defender repeatedly approached to yell threats and graphic insults.
But when they complained to police on the scene, they were told to leave. Carla Wertz, 34, said an officer, Capt. John Przepiorka, said: “‘If you say one more thing to me, you’re under arrest.' And I said, ‘Will you be asking them to leave as well?’ And he said, ‘You’re under arrest.’” (A police spokesperson said the incident is under review. Attempts to reach Przepiorka were not successful.)
Wertz and Burke were handcuffed with zip ties, placed in police cars, and taken to the 22nd District, five miles away in North Philadelphia, to receive code-violation notices — civil citations of the type given for high weeds or off-leash dogs, but in their case for violating curfew.
Mayor Jim Kenney led a push to decriminalize protest-related violations like this in 2016, ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The idea was to prevent a repeat of the 2000 Republican National Convention, when 400 people were jailed on criminal charges — but most cases were thrown out and civil rights lawsuits followed.
The process of arresting protesters and giving them civil citations has been used widely during the month of civil unrest that began May 30. More than 750 people have been arrested, cited, and released, while criminal charges have been largely reserved for looting or violence.
Many people are glad to avoid the criminal-legal system. But civil rights lawyers say the citation process is being used to make illegal arrests and stifle free speech — in Wertz’s and Burke’s case quite literally — and is being used inequitably.
“This was a means of breaking up the protest and interfering with people’s right to peacefully assemble and protest police brutality,” said Taylor Pacheco, a lawyer with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), which is contesting more than 40 code-violation notices from the past month.
Some citations, she said, were issued to people arrested at 5:30 p.m. for emergency curfews that did not take effect until 6. Others were arrested for “failure to disperse” even though they were trying to leave at the time. And some protesters say they were kept on hot buses for six or seven hours, causing those around them to urinate on themselves, to plead for water that was never distributed, and in one case to demand an ambulance after complaining of numbness for hours in metal handcuffs.
A police spokesperson, Sgt. Eric Gripp, said in an email that current practices are in line with police directives and with protocol established in 2016, when the PPD won “national recognition” for its fair treatment of protesters. “We support and defend the right to protest,” he said.
The department’s own directive, dated a month before the DNC on June 27, 2016, says people should not be arrested for code violations except in “exceptional” circumstances. “NOTE: It is the intent of this policy to ensure that individual/offender(s) receive a CVN and are released on the street,” it says. It dictates that when extraordinary circumstances require an arrest, the individual is to be brought to the police district where the incident occurred. Yet, many people in the past month were transported miles away to different, faraway police districts.
Gripp said “the processing of multiple offenders” is generally considered to create an exceptional circumstance. “It was decided in advance [of the 2016 DNC] that we would transport offenders to a facility close enough for them to be safely processed and still allow them to reengage in lawful protests. This policy has been used countless times since 2016 and, most important of all, not one individual who was issued a CVN now has a criminal record as a result of the encounter.”
Several citations reviewed by The Inquirer were for $100, though on others police failed to select a fine amount. Lawyers expect many contested citations to be tossed out, because few contain detailed information providing probable cause to find a violation. Gripp disagreed, noting arresting officers will be available to testify to the facts.
Either way, that likely will not be the end of the matter, according to Paul Hetznecker, a civil-rights lawyer, who said the practice infringes on not only First Amendment-protected free speech, but also the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unjust arrest.
“You’re taking [protesters] off the street for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to eliminate their right to protest, and that clearly infringes on their civil rights,” he said. “I anticipate that will be the basis of civil rights actions.”
Yet, since it was instituted in 2016, the arrest-cite-release practice has become normalized in Philadelphia.
For instance, several people who demonstrated in support of workers’ rights at the airport last year understood in advance that they would be arrested and cited.
What Rick Krajewski was not counting on, he recalled, was that all the protesters would have their flex-cuffs removed as they sat waiting to be processed — all except him and the one other Black man on the bus.
Krajewski, who recently ran a successful primary campaign for state representative in the 188th District, said he was disturbed to hear of a similar pattern after protesters were arrested at the Municipal Services Building on June 23. In a car holding four men, three were left in flexible cuffs while the lone Black person in the car, Steph Drain, was placed in metal handcuffs, two people in the car said.
“When you give people absolute power with no kind of accountability for their implicit bias or racism, this is what happens,” Krajewski said. “I end up on a bus with restraints when all of my white counterparts are released, and Steph has his handcuffs replaced with metal handcuffs.”
Gripp said any allegations of disparate treatment are of concern and would be investigated.
In the larger context, several protesters questioned why no curfew-violation arrests were made among the self-described vigilantes at the Target or in Fishtown, even though some were threatening and assaulting people. Around Marconi Plaza, where armed crowds supporting the preservation of the Christopher Columbus statue repeatedly boiled over into violence, only eight disorderly conduct arrests were made in the past month, according to police statistics.
“There is a perception that the handling here has not been even-handed, that the handling has favored people in Fishtown or South Philadelphia who claim they are defending the police station, which they are not, who claim they are defending the statue, when they are not,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner.
In contrast, 490 curfew or failure-to-disperse arrests were made citywide from May 30 to June 3 — often sweeping up people who said they had received no warning or who were actively trying to get home.
Bennett Glace, 26, recalled standing in the midst of protests on May 30 when peoples’ phones began blaring a curfew alert. He said police immediately began kettling protesters and making arrests. Glace would spend about seven hours on a bus, he said, before being released about 3:30 a.m. with a citation for failure to disperse and violating curfew.
Two days later, Chelsea Chamroeun, 22, said she was walking home, pushing her bike, about 6:30 p.m. when a police officer threw her friend to the ground. When she tried to film the arrest, she said, police pushed her down and handcuffed her, too, forcing her to leave her bike unlocked. She waited on a bus for three hours, so long that at least two detainees urinated on themselves, she said. Eventually, she was photographed at a North Philadelphia police station, cited for breaking curfew, and released. When she returned for her bicycle, it was gone.
Asked about claims of harsh treatment, Gripp said arrests are made according to department directives for arresting anyone in connection with a summary, misdemeanor, or felony charge. He added that anyone who believes they were mistreated should file a formal complaint.
Some wondered why, if it’s a civil offense, they were being treated like criminals.
One was William “Chip” Sinton, 29, who took part in the protest at the Municipal Services Building and was arrested and brought to a police district in South Philadelphia, where protesters waited in hot vans for a few hours. Then police took him to a bike shed to question him. He said he asked four times if he was free to go before he was permitted to leave.
“I truly think it was part of the processing plan,” Sinton said, “to be a method of punishment.”
Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.