Children affected by tear gas pouring through windows of their homes. Rubber-bullet wounds that required stitches. Residents afraid to call 911 for assistance with injuries because they distrusted authorities.
Those were among the experiences that residents shared during a Philadelphia City Council committee hearing Wednesday about the response to protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
“The police are supposed to protect us, but I genuinely can’t believe that from what I saw with my own eyes,” Qawyyah Powers, an 11th-grade student at Science Leadership Academy, told councilmembers after saying she witnessed police knock a man off his bike and beat him on June 1 while on her way home from a protest. “To see that, it’s like you protested for nothing.”
Councilmember Helen Gym, who had called for the hearing, announced at the end of it that she plans to introduce legislation to permanently ban the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other munitions against protesters.
“Residential neighborhoods are not war zones," Gym said. “Demonstrators are not enemy combatants. This is a first step in building a model of public safety that works with our communities.”
While Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw issued a moratorium in June on the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters, the legislation would make such a ban permanent under city law. Gym said the bill, cosponsored by all members of Council’s committee on public safety, would be introduced at Thursday’s full Council meeting.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on residents' experience with the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia on May 31 and on I-676 on June 1. Outlaw listened in on the hearing but did not testify; a Police Department investigation and outside review of the protest response are underway, as is a review of use-of-force policies.
“Some of you will say this is not a full picture,” Gym said of Wednesday’s hearing. “And you are correct. This is only a snapshot told through the voices of our own residents, in their own words and without a filter.”
Several residents who testified said they support reforming or defunding the police — issues that Council will likely continue to debate in the coming months, especially during budget negotiations in the spring.
Councilmembers and some of the roughly three dozen residents who testified grew tearful at times during the hearing. Residents spoke of lasting trauma and injuries from the police response and of a resulting lack of trust in city officials and police, particularly in West Philadelphia and among Black residents.
Amelia Carter, a West Philadelphia resident, said she witnessed police shoot rubber bullets in her predominantly Black neighborhood on May 31 — including at an elderly woman shot in the head. Carter said she returned home but had to leave again because it had been filled with tear gas.
“I was terrified by what I witnessed that day,” she said. “It was clear that the Philadelphia Police Department believed they were at war with us.”
Elizabeth Bhoj, a physician who lives in West Philadelphia, said she and her husband put on their scrubs and ventured into a neighborhood where no protesters had been present but where tear gas was permeating into homes.
Bhoj said she helped a woman who ran out of her home with her young daughter, who was screaming in pain. A tear gas canister had landed on their home, and the girl had been trying to rescue an infant sibling from a bedroom filling with gas.
“She thought that she had been permanently blinded and was never going to be able to see and was screaming at the top of her lungs and crying,” Bhoj said, but the girl’s mother was too distrusting of authorities to seek further medical attention and instead fled to a relative’s house.
George MacLeod, a resident who was marching with protesters on I-676 on June 1 when police used tear gas and pepper spray on the crowd, said he and his friends attempted to help people climb over a fence on the side of the highway. Someone fell on him and his shoulder became dislocated, he said.
MacLeod said he recently learned he will need surgery on the shoulder.
“It was all very dystopian,” he said. “I continue to be startled by large noises and sudden movements."
Max Hibbard, a Philadelphia teacher, said he was part of the crowd that was teargassed on I-676. The following day, he said, one of his fifth-grade students told him during their virtual school session that they had seen him in a video online.
“I had to explain to them that my girlfriend and I were punished for exercising our First Amendment rights,” he said.
Hibbard said the city owes the residents of West Philadelphia an apology, and added that he would like officials to visit schools to speak about it with students like his, who live in West Philadelphia and had been kept awake by police activity in May and June.
“Tell them," he said, “what the city is doing now to restore their trust.”