In the wake of Mayor Jim Kenney’s apology for the teargassing of a peaceful protest on I-676 earlier this month, residents and officials from the West Philadelphia neighborhood where police also deployed tear gas are demanding answers.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier represents the 52nd Street corridor where unrest over the death of George Floyd ended with police firing tear gas canisters into the street over several hours on May 31, even after violent acts had long stopped. She said the community deserves the same attention as the I-676 situation in the heart of Center City, which drew a crowd of all races, and national media attention to images of panicking protesters clambering up an embankment to escape volleys of tear gas.
“It’s good that the mayor and the police commissioner recognize what happened on 676 was wrong,” Gauthier said in an interview Friday. “But the conversation around tear gas and use of force by police continues to focus on 676, without a realization or recognition that these same tactics and more were used on a residential Black neighborhood.”
Gauthier, who observed protests in the neighborhood twice on May 31, said that the situation on 52nd Street that afternoon was chaotic. Several police cars were set on fire, some people threw rocks and other items at police, and several stores on the mostly Black-owned business corridor, in the midst of a long-hoped-for revitalization, were looted.
“I’m not going to gloss over the fact that, when I was there, protesters were aggressing on the police, and they were overwhelmed,” Gauthier said. “But I don’t know that [police] had to be overwhelmed, and I don’t know that better planning would have led us to a better place.”
She called the scene, with riot cops, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and armored police vehicles, “terrifying.”
“The first time I was out there, there was no mediating” between police and protesters as an elected official, Gauthier said. “When the riot cops started coming toward us, I just had to run. There was no saying, ‘This is who I am.‘ ”
What’s more, she noted, “the teargassing went on long after things were calm.”
Kenney, in apologizing for the teargassing on I-676, had tweeted that he decided to approve the use of tear gas in “violent situations only if lesser methods did not stop the violent behavior,” after seeing “violent looting” in West Philadelphia the day before.
Sgt. Eric Gripp, a spokesperson for the Police Department, said in an email statement on Friday that the 52nd Street incident was being reviewed. “[Police] Commissioner [Danielle] Outlaw and Mayor Kenney are highly concerned about what transpired on 52nd Street. They visited West Philly the morning of June 1 to see the damages firsthand and speak with community members,” he said.
Police initially fired tear gas at people looting a Foot Locker store on 52nd Street around 5 p.m. May 31. But for hours after crowds had dispersed, police continued to fire tear gas at people who were standing on the street, a scene observed by Inquirer journalists.
The gas wafted in clouds down the corridor and surrounding streets. Two local doctors treating protesters said they had to help a family evacuate their home after a tear gas canister landed on their front porch. They said they treated young children for exposure to the gas.
In apologizing on Twitter for 676, Kenney said that though he had opposed use of tear gas in the past, he approved it in West Philadelphia after seeing “dangerous destruction” there. He conceded that in making the decision on 52nd Street, he “ignored [his] instincts,”and said he regretted the decision after seeing video of the incident on 676.
Resident Serita Lewis said that West Philadelphia is owed an apology, too.
”It’s unacceptable to make us the poster child for all the things that go bad in the city,” said Lewis, who lives and runs a business on 50th Street organizing community engagement programs. She noted that looting and violent behavior had transpired elsewhere in the city before the decision to deploy tear gas on 52nd Street. “It is very frustrating and very tiring to always be in the location in the city where they feel like it’s OK to destroy the people in the community.”
Lewis said she didn’t condone looting, but understood how pain and anger over police brutality drive people to such acts. Police should have been better prepared to deescalate what she described as a peaceful protest that turned volatile, she said.
Cynthia Schemmer, another neighborhood resident who participated in protests and left after police began to fire tear gas, took a video showing officers firing tear gas down an empty residential block on Locust Street. She said she and other protesters were walking away from the area when the tear gas was fired toward them.
“The way it was shot across West Philly, down streets where people weren’t even participating in the protests, I just think was the absolute wrong move,” she said. “We were walking home, seeing people out on their porches, talking to their neighbors, and I’m seeing these people have their street fill up with smoke.”
Police said they are beginning an independent review of the use of tear gas on 52nd Street and could not comment extensively on the incident.
Spokesperson Gripp wrote in an email to The Inquirer that the West Philadelphia incident was not as widely covered in the media as the 676 teargassing. The mayor’s apology over I-676 was issued after the New York Times published a 10-minute video showing gasping, terrified protesters running for safety. The video showed the protesters were not violent, as police had alleged.
The Police Department is seeking more video from 52nd Street, Gripp said. “Just as there is video of arson and cars damaged, we are looking for evidence of peaceful conduct as well. Any officer who violated PPD policy will also be held accountable,” he said.
Former Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson, who was demoted Thursday over the 676 incident, also authorized the use of tear gas on 52nd Street, Gripp said. “The circumstances surrounding that decision [to deploy tear gas on 52nd Street] remain under review,” he said.
Gauthier ended the night of May 31 with a handful of peaceful protesters who remained on 52nd Street to demand a dialogue with police. Friday, she said she had been encouraged by an initial meeting she arranged between police and those protesters a week later.
“They had a lot to say about how police interact with them in their neighborhoods, about things they want to see change — wanting to see more investment in their community. They were refusing to leave because they felt like they weren’t going to get that moment again, and no one was listening to them,” she said. “I absolutely want to keep the discussions going.”
And she wants more than talk, she said.
“I think they should apologize to my community, too,” she said. “And they said they’re going to bring an independent person to do a study on what happened — I want to know that voices and perspectives of West Philly residents are going to be included. I want to know this is going to be real, and serious.”