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Philly mayor, police say tear gas was used as ‘last resort’ on protesters; others question tactics and call for reform

The harrowing images of Monday’s showdown on the Vine Street Expressway — and questions about why city and state police put on such a display of force — have become central to the debate over Philadelphia’s handling of the unrest following George Floyd’s death.

Tear gas was fired at protesters who gathered Monday afternoon on the Vine Street Expressway.
Tear gas was fired at protesters who gathered Monday afternoon on the Vine Street Expressway.Read more / File Photograph

A day after police rained tear gas down on protesters trying to flee a demonstration on I-676 and as videos surfaced of an officer ripping face masks off kneeling protesters to douse their faces with pepper spray, some elected officials questioned why police agencies used such tactics, while Philadelphia’s mayor and police commissioner defended the response.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the use of gas was a “last resort” taken after protesters flooded an open highway, surrounded a state trooper’s car, and threw rocks at officers, but they did not share evidence of those events.

The protesters, neutral observers, and journalists on the scene reported seeing no acts of aggression on the level described by police. The TV news helicopter footage published to date shows neither the rock-throwing incident nor protesters harassing police vehicles. One video shows streams of demonstrators peacefully walking past a state trooper vehicle in the moments before the first gas canisters are fired.

Pennsylvania State Police troopers were likely the first to aim gas at the Vine Street Expressway protesters, a spokesperson for the agency said Tuesday.

The decision was made after protesters who had descended onto the expressway “ignored orders to leave the road,” “began to throw objects” at police, and did not disperse after troopers deployed smoke devices, Ryan Tarkowski, a State Police spokesperson, said in an email.

» READ MORE: Kenney defends tear gas on 676, but blasts ‘vigilantism’ in Fishtown

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Having exhausted other options, troopers deployed tear gas "to gain compliance and end the threat to motorists and PSP personnel,” Tarkowski said.

Outlaw said city SWAT officers on the scene also fired beanbags, pepper spray, and tear gas canisters. She said SWAT officers fired non-chemical white smoke in an attempt to disperse the demonstrators who had climbed down and filled the highway when it was still open to vehicle traffic.

Asked who approved the use of tear gas, Outlaw said: “The decision to deploy gas was made by the incident commander there on the scene. I’m not going to say names at this point.”

The department has opened an internal investigation, as it does after all use-of-force incidents. “Whether or not there was clear or proper supervision during that incident will be handled as well," she said.

Protesters said that there was no warning, or that few of the hundreds spread across the expressway could hear if there had been an announcement. They also questioned why police continued shooting gas canisters at fleeing demonstrators.

Outlaw declined to offer specifics when asked why police continued to fire gas at protesters clambering up the hill to flee or if that was an appropriate tactic.

As for the SWAT officer who ripped down protesters’ masks and pepper-sprayed them, Outlaw said she saw the video for the first time Tuesday morning and was upset by what it showed.

“I will not allow the actions of some individuals within this organization to undermine the efforts that we are trying to make as an organization moving forward during this time,” Outlaw said. “I don’t need distractions internally to take away from what we’re trying to accomplish as well.”

Outlaw also said in an email sent to her 6,500-member department Tuesday afternoon that all uses of force must now be reported via police radio, in addition to a written report after the fact, “to ensure we can properly defend our actions when we are ultimately challenged.”

Kenney was more direct. “That’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “Totally unacceptable.”

‘Crying and begging for help’

One of the protesters sprayed at close range was Christina Sorenson, a 36-year-old attorney who said she knew she could be arrested during the incident. When a Philadelphia SWAT officer approached her, she and another white woman were kneeling on the highway trying to protect a young black man by positioning themselves between him and the police.

She lowered her head and put her hands behind her back, prepared to be taken into custody, she said.

“I had goggles on, and he pulled the goggles down to spray into my eyes,” said Sorenson, a Soros Justice Fellow for the Juvenile Law Center.

The officer, who appears to be white, moved from Sorenson to the other woman and sprayed her face, videos show, before reaching the young black man and inundating him with the chemicals and shoving him into the ground.

Unlike dozens of people on the road, Sorenson wasn’t arrested. Her partner, Maxwell, guided her and the woman next to her to the side of the hill, where they fought through bushes and over fallen people to escape. As they ran away, police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd, causing a mass of screaming protesters to be trapped against the metal fence.

“I couldn’t see and was crying and begging for help,” she said. She was lifted up and people on the other side of the fence pulled her over.

Use of force debated

Between the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and the Democratic National Convention in 2016, the Philadelphia Police Department fielded little criticism for its response to protests that attracted thousands of people to the city.

Bike and Civil Affairs officers often trailed demonstrators as they marched, and even tense standoffs were resolved without a display like Monday’s use of tear gas.

“We didn’t have to, but we didn’t have a situation that led to it being needed,” former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said. “But it was always available.”

Ramsey was reluctant to offer an opinion on the officers involved in Monday’s incident on I-676. But he said the department worked to avoid such scenarios during his tenure.

“One thing we didn’t do was allow them on the highway,” he said. “It’s dangerous for the protesters, and it’s dangerous for people driving on the interstate."

Councilmember David Oh said that while he could not comment on whether the police used tear gas appropriately until he learned more about how the incident unfolded, he believed it was appropriate to use force to remove the protesters from the highway because the demonstration posed a safety threat.

“I understand the perspective of people who say, ‘Well, we’re peaceful. We’re not committing any crimes,’” said Oh, one of Council’s two Republicans. “I can also understand the perspective that, ‘Hey, that’s a highway, and first of all, if you get run over by a car, that would be a big problem.’”

Many other elected officials from Philadelphia on Tuesday condemned the use of force, saying it escalated tensions between police and protesters and was counterproductive.

“It’s a defining moment,” City Councilmember Kathy Gilmore Richardson said Tuesday. “If they’re peacefully assembled, we shouldn’t be teargassing folks.”

Councilmember Kendra Brooks became emotional as she reflected on the incident, saying she had friends caught in the melee.

“It just confirmed what we have been saying all along, that this is what we’re seeing on the streets. This is what’s happening every day. And it doesn’t get recognition until it’s white people,” she said of the racially diverse demonstration. “We have to make sure that we are not violating people’s rights, especially in this time.”

About a dozen other Philadelphia elected officials, all but one of whom are African American, unveiled a detailed plan Tuesday for reforming policing. The group called on Council to pass an ordinance requiring citizen input on police contract negotiations, which are usually held behind closed doors and have produced strong protections for officers accused of wrongdoing. They also want Gov. Tom Wolf to create a deputy inspector general position dedicated to rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in law enforcement agencies. And they want Kenney to end stop-and-frisk tactics.

‘A war zone’

Ashlyn Ernst was in the middle of the mass of marchers when she heard a popping noise in front of her and people started to run. She hurried up the embankment closest to her, but became trapped against a tall fence, as police continued to throw tear gas into them.

“It was truly apocalyptic, a war zone like I’ve never seen,” said Ernst, 27, one of the dozens of people arrested. “From behind us they’re coming with tear gas and from the other side they’re coming with some sort of explosive.”

Ernst wasn’t able to get over the fence and began walking down the hill, desperate to escape the smoke trap. One policeman approached her and shoved her over the side of the highway barrier, she said, then another ripped off her backpack and handcuffed her.

"My grandfather was a cop for 27 years,” she said, adding that she has a tremendous amount of respect for police. “But yesterday it showed me I have every right to be terrified of the police. I was very physically brutalized. I was thrown around. I have bruises and cuts all over.”

She said she was taken in a white bus to a precinct in North Philadelphia, where she was processed, issued a ticket for “failure to disperse,” and then released.

Many of the protesters said the scene they endured on the highway was a turning point in the way they view city officials, and they criticized Kenney for siding with the police tactics.

“What the police did to me in the middle of the day, in public, with thousands of people watching ... I know this is a fraction of what’s happening in our jails and to our black citizens,” said Sorenson.

She said Kenney’s “silence and giving the power to the police is showing that he is not behind the protesters.”