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Police under fire for ‘coddling’ violent groups of white people in Fishtown, South Philly

“If there was today a Black Lives Matter protest where all the participants were carrying baseball bats, hammers, and other makeshift weapons, that protest wouldn’t make it 10 feet down the street.”

Police keep local residents (shown here) and protesters divided on S. Broad Street at Marconi Plaza earlier this week.
Police keep local residents (shown here) and protesters divided on S. Broad Street at Marconi Plaza earlier this week.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Violent mobs, mostly of white men, some armed, have occupied parts of two Philadelphia neighborhoods on at least four occasions this month. They have attacked protesters and passersby, punching them, shoving them, and using racist language.

This week, a growing number of Philadelphia officials and protest leaders say the city has not done enough to control the crowds.

They also questioned if police have served justice evenly, pointing to more aggressive tactics used in majority-Black neighborhoods and against protesters critical of law enforcement.

The most recent physical confrontation happened Tuesday, when about 50 protesters marched to the statue of Christopher Columbus at Marconi Plaza after a demonstration in Center City. Upon their arrival, more than 100 people who had gathered with baseball bats, golf clubs, and hammers dropped their weapons and crossed the street to yell at the protesters.

A brawl in the middle of Broad Street ensued. A white man punched a Black photographer in the face after repeatedly yelling, “Get outta here, boy.” Four people were arrested, including the man who is seen on video hitting the photographer, and who is charged with assault and ethnic intimidation.

The mobs that have roamed the neighborhoods say it’s all in the name of protecting property, though the confrontation Tuesday was after the city boxed up the Columbus statue. On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the city would seek approval to remove the statue, where three of the four violent clashes occurred.

“If there was today a Black Lives Matter protest where all the participants were carrying baseball bats, hammers, and other makeshift weapons, that protest wouldn’t make it 10 feet down the street before police stopped them,” said Kevin Mincey, a Philadelphia lawyer who represents three protesters who were pepper-sprayed on June 1 while kneeling on the Vine Street Expressway. Video shows an officer — who has been suspended with intent to dismiss — sprayed the individuals at close range, pulling one’s mask off her face.

District Attorney Larry Krasner this week publicly criticized the department’s handling of the South Philadelphia group and a similar mob mostly of white men who gathered in Fishtown on June 1. During a news conference Thursday, Krasner said his office has multiple investigations pending regarding the groups. Some of those investigations are independent of the Police Department and were initiated by complaints made directly to Krasner’s office. “A lot of people want to know why those individuals are being coddled and why they seem to have some sort of special protection,” he said in an interview.

The Police Department declined requests for interviews. In a statement, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the department is “committed to rendering service with fairness, impartiality and objectivity; and certainly understand the justifiable feelings of alienation and frustration that arise from even the appearance of partiality and preferential treatment.”

Krasner’s office has launched an investigation into how police handled the incident in Fishtown, as has police Internal Affairs. City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office is investigating the city’s response to protests generally, Kenney’s administration has authorized an independent probe, and city councilmembers on Thursday authorized a hearing to “evaluate inequities in law enforcement response.”

» READ MORE: ‘Why aren’t you arresting them?’ Philly officials investigate police after assaults against Fishtown protesters

The city’s Police Advisory Commission, which monitors police conduct and makes recommendations, is weighing how police handled crowds that said they supported law enforcement vs. those who protested against it.

“When we talk about institutional racism, these are the classic examples,” Hans Menos, executive director of the commission, said. “That doesn’t mean that anyone got up in the morning and said, ‘I’m going to treat Black groups differently,' but the net outcome doesn’t care about intentions.”

In an interview this week, Krasner, whose career prior to his election was focused on police misconduct, said he had lodged concerns about the handling of these groups since the incident in Fishtown. He said he has suggested to Outlaw that officers issue citations to people walking around with weapons and clearly looking for trouble, something “that’s happened all over the city to people who have no weapons.”

He also said individuals carrying weapons and threatening others could be charged with possession of an instrument of crime, a misdemeanor.

Outlaw said in a statement that warrantless arrests for misdemeanor offenses not committed in the presence of a police officer are generally prohibited.

A handful of people have been arrested in connection with the mob incidents, including at least three charged with assault stemming from incidents at Marconi Plaza. John Mooney, 58, was charged in the assault of a Black photographer, who said he was initially unsure if an arrest was made and had trouble getting officers to take a report. Louis Paolino, 51, of South Philadelphia, and T.J. Cahill, 51, of Northeast Philadelphia, were arrested June 16 on charges including harassment and simple assault.

During the Fishtown confrontation, multiple residents told reporters that members of the group assaulted them that night, and there were 36 reports of a “person with a weapon” between 4 and 10 p.m. Police said officers did not arrest anyone during that time within a half-mile of where the group had gathered, though a video posted to Twitter by a WHYY producer shows a Black man in handcuffs.

On Thursday, police arrested George Graf, 36, who is accused of assaulting the producer and his girlfriend. A law enforcement source told The Inquirer that the investigation of Graf was initiated by the District Attorney’s Office, with subsequent collaboration by police.

Deana Gamble, Kenney’s spokesperson, said in a statement that the mayor doesn’t condone “vigilantism” and “expects police officers to treat all protesters the same and enforce the law fairly.” She said if people believe they have been treated unfairly, they should file a complaint by visiting a police station, calling the Internal Affairs Division, or submitting one online.

Representatives for City Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes Marconi Plaza, and Mark Squilla, whose district abuts it, said the councilmembers were not available for an interview.

Antiracism demonstrators — who numbered in the hundreds Tuesday to march against “racist vigilantism” — say a too-lax response from police for weeks has incited “mob violence.”

“The police just stood by and instead were encouraging them. They were congratulating them. They were also encouraging by inaction. They laughed,” said Ron Joseph, who told a reporter he went to the statue on June 14 to check on friends and fled with a broken nose and pepper spray in his eyes.

Videos from June 14 support claims by a half-dozen people who said they were assaulted and threatened by those who claimed they were defending the Columbus statue. The day prior, the left-wing news organization Unicorn Riot — a citizen journalism outfit that gained prominence reporting on police violence during protests — posted a video showing Capt. Louis Campione, then the commanding officer of the district that includes the plaza, telling the person filming to leave the public park for “inciting a riot.”

» READ MORE: Protest observers say police allowed South Philly Columbus ‘defenders’ to assault them

Days later, Campione was transferred as part of what police characterized as “one of several command changes that took place.” Capt. Robert Zaffino is now the commanding officer of the First District.

On June 16, dozens of Campione’s supporters, including many who had stood around the statue for days, again gathered at the plaza to protest his transfer, and engaged in heated verbal confrontations with counter-protesters.

Anthony Giordano, who runs a Facebook page called “STAND UP SOUTH PHILLY AND TAKE OUR STREETS BACK,” helped organize the rally and has generally supported the group that calls itself “the Gravy Seals,” which is also one of a number of pejoratives assigned to the group by those who oppose it. (The group has T-shirts that read “land * air * wooder” and depict an eagle clutching a rifle.)

But on Monday, in anticipation of the “march against racist vigilantes,” Giordano said, he consulted with police and encouraged members of the Facebook group to stay home and “not engage with these agitators.”

“The message I tried to get across is if someone is peacefully assembling against what you’re assembled for, they have just as much right to be there,” he said. “No one should be attacking anyone for anything.”

Still, dozens of people gathered on the east side of the plaza Tuesday afternoon with weapons. As the confrontation began, some hurled racist and homophobic slurs. The group yelled to the protesters “turn around” and “white lives matter,” and chanted “four more years” and employed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, yelling “fake news” at journalists.

Protesters returned the verbal hostility. After a brief scuffle, at least one young Black male was detained and put in a police van. Dozens of men from the side that had been wielding bats got within yards of the vehicle and taunted the man being arrested.

When a reporter asked why they were allowed to step closer, an officer responded: “Because they were on that side.”

Staff writers Samantha Melamed and Chris Palmer contributed.