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The indictment of a prominent activist, 3 others for allegedly torching cop cars has become a flash point in the debate around Philly protests

Prosecutors say the four men were involved in burning a police car during demonstrations outside City Hall on May 30. Protesters dismiss the case as political and are calling for their release.

Anthony Smith, pictured here at 52nd and Cedar Streets in West Philadelphia in a July 15 file photo, was one of four men charged Thursday with arson and related offenses for allegedly setting fire to police cars during May 30 racial injustice protests outside City Hall.
Anthony Smith, pictured here at 52nd and Cedar Streets in West Philadelphia in a July 15 file photo, was one of four men charged Thursday with arson and related offenses for allegedly setting fire to police cars during May 30 racial injustice protests outside City Hall.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Describing Philadelphia as a city standing on the precipice between “respect for democracy” and “destruction,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain on Thursday announced arson charges against four men accused of torching police cars during racial injustice protests this spring and condemned property destruction committed during a second wave of unrest that has gripped the city this week.

But the nature of the charges and timing of the arrests — days after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. and within a week of a presidential election in which race and social justice issues have become dominant issues — drew sharp rebukes from the defendants' lawyers and protest leaders who accused President Donald Trump’s top appointed federal prosecutor for the region of playing politics with the case.

Speaking at a news conference in Center City, McSwain stressed that the men who were charged were not indicted for participating in lawful protests but rather for committing violent acts while doing so. Among them was Anthony Smith, a social studies teacher and prominent organizer with the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial and Economic Legal Justice (Philly for REAL Justice).

“At this moment in the city’s history, we can go down one of two paths,” McSwain said. “We can go down a path of healing and respect for democracy where we work together and improve relations between law enforcement and the community and where we have free, fair, and peaceful elections. Or, we can go down a path of destruction that further divides us.”

As for the timing of the arrests, he added, investigations “take as long as they take.”

Smith’s lawyer, Paul Hetznecker, balked at the U.S. attorney’s characterization of the case.

“Utilizing the awesome power of the federal government to target activists and select them for federal prosecution during one of the most important social justice movements in our history sends a dangerous message,” he said, calling the case “part of a broader effort by this administration to criminalize and quell dissent expressed by progressive political movements” — an assertion McSwain dismissed as “nonsense.”

The indictment filed against Smith and two codefendants — Carlos Matchett, 30, of Atlantic City, and Khalif Miller, 25, of Philadelphia — was sparse on details, saying only that they were involved in burning a Philadelphia police vehicle during May 30 demonstrations outside City Hall in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It did not indicate whether prosecutors believed the men set the fire themselves or assisted those who did. And when pressed to explain how investigators identified them, what specific acts they were accused of committing, and whether agents believe they coordinated or acted spontaneously as individuals, McSwain demurred, saying only that the investigation continues and that that information would eventually come out in court.

He provided more detail on the fourth man charged — Ayoub Tabri, 24, of Arlington, Va. — who he said was part of a crowd that used road flares stolen from a Pennsylvania State Police car parked near the intersection of Broad and Vine Streets to set the vehicle ablaze. The uniform of a state trooper standing nearby caught on fire, McSwain said, and the man later burned his hand trying to retrieve items from the burning vehicle.

Smith, Matchett, Miller, and Tabri face multiple counts of arson that carry a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence upon conviction. They have also been charged with obstructing law enforcement during a civil disorder — a federal statute, rarely used before this year, that was enacted during the Nixon administration’s efforts to crack down on antiwar and Black Power movements in the late 1960s.

» READ MORE: Arrests made in torching of state police squad cars during Philly protests

Since May when Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations across the country, federal prosecutors have lodged more than 300 felony cases nationwide against demonstrators espousing both left- and right-wing views — including Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, a Germantown massage therapist, also charged by McSwain’s office with setting police cars on fire during the May 30 protest.

Attorney General William Barr has urged U.S. attorneys to pursue cases against “violent rioters” using specific charges like the ones deployed against Smith, Matchett, Miller, and Tabri on Thursday.

And Trump has repeatedly railed on the campaign trail against what he has dismissed as “anarchist riots” and, in recent weeks, he has zeroed in on Philadelphia to falsely accuse elections officials of rigging the vote against him.

But the men charged Thursday do not fit any one distinct profile and authorities have not suggested that they were part of any organized group intending to foment destruction.

Both Matchett and Tabri hail from other states.

In June, federal prosecutors in New Jersey charged Matchett with inciting a riot after he was allegedly caught urging protesters to loot the Tanger Outlets in his hometown of Atlantic City the day after the car fire he is now accused of setting.

Police said they found an ax, a knife, and a jar that appeared to be filled with gasoline in his backpack. A day after his arrest, FBI agents discovered Facebook posts with videos depicting him assisting others as they ransacked the shops, according to court filings in his case.

Smith, meanwhile, is a longtime city resident who teaches social studies at YouthBuild Charter School and is a well-known organizer in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. Through Philly for REAL Justice, he rose to prominence in 2016 as part of a campaign demanding the removal of the controversial Frank Rizzo statue from outside the Municipal Services Building in Center City.

And after Philadelphia police fired rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas at protesters and bystanders alike during efforts to quell looting and violence that erupted along 52nd Street in May, Smith became the lead plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit neighborhood residents filed against the city.

Days before his arrest in this week’s case, his activism drew praise from Philadelphia Magazine, which named him one of the city’s most influential residents.

“Seeing federal charges brought against a movement leader like Anthony is sickening,” his friend James Miles said. “All this makes you wonder, ‘Is the federal government arresting and charging movement leaders to try to scare the rest of us?’”

Responding at his news conference Thursday, McSwain brusquely dismissed such questions.

“To state the obvious that is not why [Smith] is now in federal prison,” he said. “We are not in any way trying to intimidate, scare, or stop peaceful protests. And if anyone makes that allegation, that’s just nonsense. What we are going to do is enforce the law.”

McSwain said his office would seek to hold Smith, Matchett, Miller and Tabri without bail at court hearings in the coming days.

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.