As the sun rose above Philadelphia on Sunday, the cool morning air was thick with smoke, and the streets were covered with shattered glass and burned clothes. Helicopters hovered overhead and stores’ security alarms blared, but an eerie silence overcame residents as they wandered through the streets, shocked by the path of destruction.
After Saturday’s peaceful protests in Center City of the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis a week ago turned violent, people started fires and looted stores. The shopping district west of City Hall extending to the Rittenhouse Square area became the epicenter of the torment. Big-name stores like Urban Outfitters, Loft, Foot Locker, and H&M were decimated, now a shell of glass, ripped clothes, and spray paint.
Empty shoeboxes scattered the alleys and dumpsters were overturned. Water ran in the streets as firefighters doused three buildings on Walnut Street, including the Dr. Martens and Vans stores, which had been set on fire overnight.
All a statement against the city’s deep racial tensions and a recent act of violence — a Minnesota police officer kneeling for nine minutes on the neck of George Floyd, who was unarmed and suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill in a local deli. His life-ending takedown that was captured on video has sparked global outrage and many destructive nights across the country.
In Philadelphia, residents couldn’t find the words and simply shook their heads as they stepped over piles of ash and peered into shattered windows.
“I can’t believe it,” one man said.
“I can’t stop walking or I’ll start crying,” a woman told her daughter as they stepped over a scorched mannequin.
Many walls and windows in Center City were spray-painted with phrases like “Racist cops did this," “I can’t breathe," and “Justice 4 Floyd." More than 200 people were arrested Saturday — including 48 suspected of burglary or looting, four of theft, three of assaulting police, and three of weapons violations, police said Sunday.
Armed with brooms and trash bags, dozens of volunteers flocked to the Rittenhouse Square area to clean up the destruction. By noon, the scene was drastically different from what it was in the early morning. Most of the shattered glass had been swept up, and trash was piled on the corners. Business owners rushed to board up their windows to prevent further destruction.
Jake Newman, who lives in an apartment on the corner of 17th and Walnut Streets, where a majority of the vandalism and looting unfolded, walked down to the street at 7 a.m. to start cleaning.
“That’s what we do when it’s in your neighborhood,” said Newman, who moved to Philadelphia from Dallas 10 months ago. “It doesn’t matter who did it.”
Newman, 37, said he took his dog for a walk around 5 p.m. Saturday but hurried home as the “atmosphere was thicker” and the tension grew.
“You could hear the windows smashing,” he said. “And you could smell the trash burning” from the dumpsters on fire along Sansom Street.
“Then there was nothing but fire and police sirens,” he said.
The looting continued into Sunday afternoon. Some people picked over the clothes thrown throughout the streets, while dozens ran in and out of Foot Locker and Modell’s on Chestnut Street, their arms and backpacks filled with sportswear. Some sat on the sidewalk outside Modell’s as the crowd grew, trying on shoes then heading back into the store to see if their size was still left.
For much of the morning, there was little police presence in the commercial area. Around 10:30 a.m., police arrived at Modell’s to disperse the crowd and guard what was left of the store. “Twelve! Twelve!” people yelled to warn their friends, sending many sprinting out of the store, while others stood in defiance to confront the officers with middle fingers. The Police Department’s presence increased as the day went on in an attempt to lock down streets ahead of Sunday’s 6 p.m. curfew.
Around the corner, at 16th and Sansom, the owners of Philadelphia Runner arrived at their Center City store to find the windows bashed in, shoes and clothing stolen, and the floors flooded.
“We came down thinking we’d clean up, but I think it’s a little beyond what we were expecting,” said Ross Martinson, one of the owners.
The flagship store was unrecognizable beyond its sign out front. The parts of the floor that weren’t covered in glass and tossed clothing were flooded. Demonstrators had tried to light three fires inside the store, Martinson said, which triggered the sprinklers to go off, flooding the building and forcing the apartments above the store to evacuate.
“What is left is mush,” Martinson said.
“I cried on the way down and tried to get it out then,” he said. “And I go in and out of wanting to cry again.”
“We were looking forward to opening next week,” he said. But now, the entire store will likely need to be gutted, exacerbating the financial stress the local store was under due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus-inspired shutdown orders.