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Philadelphia will pay $9.25M to protesters over police use of tear gas and rubber bullets during 2020 unrest

The city also agreed to contribute $500,000 to a fund that will provide counseling to victims of police violence and offer community-led programming.

Police fire tear gas at protesters on I-676 on June 1, 2020.
Police fire tear gas at protesters on I-676 on June 1, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The city has agreed to pay a combined $9.25 million to hundreds of people teargassed, struck with rubber bullets, and detained by police during the 2020 racial justice protests after the police murder of George Floyd.

In a settlement order signed Monday by U.S. District Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge, the city agreed to pay plaintiffs in four federal civil rights lawsuits, as well as contribute $500,000 to a fund that will provide counseling to victims of police violence and offer community-led programming. That money will be distributed to grassroots organizations via grants through the Bread & Roses Community Fund.

The damages awarded to each of the about 350 plaintiffs vary depending on the circumstances of their cases, attorneys said during a news conference at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in West Philadelphia.

“This power must not go unchecked. It must be confronted,” said Paul Hetznecker, one of the civil rights attorneys in a team representing 240 of the plaintiffs.

He said this is the largest settlement in a mass protest-related case in the city’s history.

In a statement Monday, Mayor Jim Kenney said that “the pain and trauma caused by a legacy of systemic racism and police brutality against Black and Brown Philadelphians is immeasurable.”

“While this is just one step in the direction toward reconciliation, we hope this settlement will provide some healing from the harm experienced by people in their neighborhoods in West Philadelphia and during demonstrations on I-676 in 2020,” Kenney said.

In the four lawsuits, hundreds of people sued the city, citing “extraordinary abuses of police power” during unrest that roiled the country after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020. Plaintiffs asserted that the heavy-handed tactics police used to disperse crowds trampled their constitutional rights to free expression and freedom from excessive force.

» READ MORE: Protesters, residents sue Philly police over tear gas, ‘extraordinary abuses of police power’

The lawsuits focused on two incidents: the mass teargassing of protesters on I-676 on June 1, 2020, and the police use of military-style weaponry on demonstrators and neighborhood residents while attempting to curb looting and violence along the 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia, a historically Black neighborhood.

Plaintiffs described rashes, pain, and difficulty breathing due to exposure to the noxious chemicals, with some requiring hospitalization and many others suffering mental trauma.

In an event that garnered national attention and later an apology from Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, police surrounded protesters marching on the Vine Street Expressway, then shot rubber bullets and launched tear gas into the fleeing crowd. Many demonstrators were trapped up against a fence, unable to breathe from the gas, while police dragged others down the hill. Dozens were detained.

During the melee, three plaintiffs were pepper-sprayed in the face at close range by former Philadelphia SWAT officer Richard Nicoletti, who was later fired, arrested, and charged with assault.

Some demonstrators said the response still haunts them, physically and psychologically.

Gwen Snyder, a West Philadelphia-based organizer and one of the plaintiffs, was detained on the highway, and said her wrists were zip-tied behind her back so tightly, she lost feeling in her hands. One of her arms still periodically goes numb as she breastfeeds her daughter or pushes her stroller, she said.

“I was in some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said.

Ed Parker, who was similarly detained and zip-tied, said he has had three surgeries to correct the wrist damage. He said the sounds of people screaming and weeping still haunt him.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia protesters gassed on I-676, leading to ‘pandemonium’ as they tried to flee

“The irony is that the Police Department responded to a protest of police brutality, racial discrimination, and excessive force, with further police brutality,” said Charles McLaurin, of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

One day earlier in West Philadelphia, a police response to looting and altercations with officers on 52nd Street drew crowds of peaceful demonstrators and bystanders who were met with the same aggressive tactics. People fled from pepper spray and rubber bullets, while tear gas blanketed the neighborhood, sickening children and causing some residents to evacuate.

» READ MORE: 'I couldn't breathe:' Inside the West Philly neighborhood tear-gassed by police

“Police fired tear gas at our family’s home, leaving my 3-year-old son crying and my 6-year-old son completely terrified,” said Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi, a plaintiff in the Legal Defense Fund’s case, who hid from the fumes in a bathroom and later moved her family out of the area. “The house was enclosed in gas, and we were trapped inside with nowhere to go.”

She called the settlement an “important step, but it does not represent full accountability for the harm that occurred.”

Attorneys from the LDF — which represented 20 plaintiffs — called the tactics in West Philadelphia racially discriminatory and retaliation against Black residents exercising their right to protest.

Kenney later said he regretted the police actions. The city banned the use of tear gas or rubber bullets during demonstrations and created a new deputy inspector general of public safety and a police oversight commission with investigative powers.

As part of the settlement, police officials will meet biannually with West Philadelphia community members to discuss the department’s use of force and respond to questions and comments. Attorneys noted that the city has also disengaged from a federal program that transfers extra military equipment to local police departments.

Attorneys Monday emphasized that the settlement is only one part of their fight to hold the city accountable. Some protesters said they want the city to commit to banning the use of less-than-lethal ammunition like tear gas and rubber bullets.

In a statement, Outlaw said that “the Philadelphia Police Department is a learning organization, and we remain dedicated to moving forward in meaningful and productive ways.”

“Along with city, state, and community stakeholders, we will continue to work non-stop towards improving what we as police do to protect the first amendment rights of protesters, keep our communities and officers safe, and to ultimately prove that we are committed to a higher standard,” she said.

Monday’s settlement marks the largest — but not the first — to emerge from the hundreds of claims filed against the city after the 2020 unrest. In 2021, the city agreed to pay $87,000 to a family teargassed in their West Philadelphia home. The city paid $20,000 to a 27-year-old Roxborough man who said he was pelted with rubber bullets and required hospitalization and $267,000 to settle three lawsuits filed against former Police Inspector Joseph Bologna, who physically attacked protesters.

And, following October 2020 unrest after police killed Walter Wallace Jr., the city agreed to pay $2 million to a mother who was pulled from her SUV, beaten by police, and separated from her toddler.

Earlier this month, New York City similarly agreed to pay $21,500 each to more than 300 protesters who were surrounded and arrested by police in 2020.

» READ MORE: How George Floyd changed a city 1,100 miles away

Jo Dean, a plaintiff who was on I-676, recalled back to the moments before police began firing the tear gas.

”I remember thinking during that time that if anything was going to change, this would be it. And it didn’t,” Dean said. “I would give up all the money if the police could simply agree to do no harm.”

Staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.