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West Philly activist accused of torching a police car during protests will remain in jail

Smith, a social studies teacher at the YouthBuild Philadelphia charter school and an organizer of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial Economic and Legal Justice, was arrested Oct. 28.

Anthony Smith, at 52nd and Cedar Streets in West Philadelphia, in July 2020.
Anthony Smith, at 52nd and Cedar Streets in West Philadelphia, in July 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Anthony Smith, a prominent West Philadelphia activist accused of burning a Philadelphia police car during racial-injustice protests in May, will remain in jail for now while awaiting trial on arson charges, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Curtis Joyner on Friday afternoon granted an emergency request by federal prosecutors to keep Smith detained.

That decision reversed an earlier order by U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry Perkin that Smith, 29, be released to his West Philadelphia home with electronic monitoring and a curfew.

Shortly after Perkin’s ruling at a virtual detention hearing on Friday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Reinitz filed an emergency motion asking Joyner to reverse the release order.

Smith, a social studies teacher at the YouthBuild Philadelphia charter school and one of the organizers of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial Economic and Legal Justice (Philly for REAL Justice), was arrested at his home on Oct. 28. He remains in the Lehigh County jail, his attorney said.

Smith was one of three defendants arrested on charges of arson and obstructing law enforcement after a police car was set ablaze outside City Hall in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Codefendant Carlos Matchett, 30, of Atlantic City, separately agreed Tuesday to pretrial detention in the case, and another codefendant, Khalif Miller, 25, of Philadelphia, has a detention hearing scheduled for next Friday.

Smith’s attorney, Paul Hetznecker, argued that the evidence against Smith was not enough to conclude he is a danger to the community or a flight risk. He noted the 70 letters sent to the judge on Smith’s behalf and said that during the five months since the May 30 incident Smith has volunteered feeding the homeless and worked at his teaching job.

Reinitz told Perkin that although the government doesn’t yet know who set the police car aflame with a lit road flare, Smith added “fuel to the fire” by throwing paper and cardboard into the car in actions captured on helicopter video.

Prosecutors said that before the car was set on fire, people had flipped it over. It is not clear if Smith helped. But he was photographed “standing victoriously on top of the flipped car” before it was torched, Reinitz wrote in a detention memorandum.

Reinitz said the seven-year mandatory minimum sentence Smith faces if convicted reflects the seriousness of the charges. She also noted that last month he called in a Facebook post for people to arm themselves against the police and the right-wing Proud Boys.

Hetznecker, on the other hand, described the evidence against his client as “a piece of paper” thrown into a car “already engulfed in flames.” That single moment should not outweigh Smith’s lifetime of good works, he said.

Sarah Burgess, YouthBuild’s director of curriculum and instruction, testified before Perkin that Smith, who is known as “Ant,” is “a warm, genuine, loving, deeply valued, and respected member of our community.”

News of the release order quickly made its way to the streets of Philadelphia. Outside the city’s Convention Center, where protesters gathered awaiting the results of the presidential vote count, activist Samantha Rise, using a microphone, told the crowd Smith had been ordered released and called him a visionary leader “of Black working-class Philadelphians.” Supporters in the crowd cheered and blew horns.

But the celebration was short-lived after later news spread of the government’s appeal and Joyner’s order keeping Smith in custody pending another hearing.

Smith’s arrest came days after he was lauded in an article in Philadelphia Magazine for his activism. He is also the lead plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit over the police response to racial-injustice protests this spring.

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.