Philadelphia saw its eighth consecutive day of protests yesterday in honor of George Floyd and against police brutality. Thousands of people showed up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and marched through the city.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Ellie Rushing, who covered demonstrations for George Floyd on Monday and was alongside protesters when police used tear gas on I-676.
What did you know before going out to cover this demonstration Monday? What was your day like?
I didn’t know much, just that the group was starting at Police Headquarters in Center City. I saw how intense the protests and unrest became Saturday and Sunday, so I was prepared for another emotional and potentially violent scene and brought a face shield and quart of milk with me in case of tear gas.
I started my day reading my latest book, Becoming by Michelle Obama, and then had to take my new cat to the vet. I rushed home from the vet to get ready to head into the city for the day.
When you followed the demonstration, what did you see and hear on the street? When the group moved to I-676, what did the scene look like?
I was amazed by the size of the group. When the protest at City Hall and the protest at Police Headquarters merged on East Market Street, the mass of people extended at least eight blocks. Their voices were strong and they stood as one, chanting, “No justice, no peace” and remembering the names of black people recently killed by police as they moved west towards the Ben Franklin Parkway. At first, I thought they were heading to the Art Museum, then they veered to the left, and people started lifting up the metal gates to flood onto I-676. I was shocked at first at how seamlessly they entered the roads and how all the police escorts merely stood by and didn’t try to stop them.
I wanted to be able to witness everything unfold, so I followed them. Both sides (of the highway) were blocked, and people were cheering together. A handful of people even got out of their cars and held their fists up in the air, honking and chanting in support. They slowly started moving down the highway and I figured they would pass a few exits then hop off near City Hall. I couldn’t see any police interference, just traffic, and I saw no protester violence.
What did you see leading up to the police using tear gas? What did you see, hear, and experience when it was used?
I was toward the back of the group, so I stood on top of the median to get a view of the front. We hadn’t been down there 10 minutes before I heard a few popping noises and then saw the people at the front starting to disperse and run back up the embankment. People towards the back were confused. There were no police down on the highway telling people to leave, but I heard some sirens coming from above.
All of a sudden, the wind blew toward me and my eyes started to burn. Everyone around me started to lightly cough. Then out of nowhere, multiple tear gas canisters were thrown into the back end of the crowd. I started running up the embankment with everybody, but it was a really steep hill, crowded by a hundred panicked people. More tear gas was being thrown into us as we ran up, and one landed right next to me. At this point, I couldn’t see anything and I could barely breathe. I had to rip off my face mask and dig my hands into the dirt to crawl up the side of the hill. People were grabbing each other, screaming for help and in pain.
What happened next? What was it like at that moment on I-676?
After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the top of the hill. Luckily, the fence on the side I ran up had been taken down, so I was free. I collapsed at the top and thought I was going to throw up. Police still threw tear gas even at the top. I forced myself up and started running forward away from the gas, then collapsed again. A few people came to me and poured a milk-and-baking soda solution into my eyes and I could see again. In between a 3-minute long coughing fit, I looked back and saw another mass of people trapped against a fenced-in part of the embankment.
People were trying to pull themselves over this 12-foot fence, while people on the other side were dragging them over. At that point, I knew I needed to get away from this area, so I just started running toward the Art Museum to find a place to sit down and catch my breath.
In the aftermath, what did you see and experience? What did you do afterward?
I am still processing what unfolded that afternoon. The screams of people still echo in my mind, and the panic I felt as I ran up that embankment is pulsing through my veins as I write this. After I found a relatively safe place to sit down and caught my breath, I tried to send a message to the newsroom and tell them what happened. I don’t think I could fully explain what people on I-676 endured in that moment, but I tried. I typed out what I could and then tried to tweet out what happened to update people following the protest. I wiped myself down and tried not to start crying because I knew if I started I might not stop. I had to get back to work to make sure people would remember and understand what had just unfolded.
I was particularly taken by how much the other protesters helped each other escape the area that day. Watching them drag each other up the hill and over the fence and fish through abandoned belongings and try to find their owners afterward. At least five people came to help me when I collapsed. One woman I interviewed who was arrested said she yelled her fiance’s phone number out of the police bus window as they were driving her away and a bystander heard it and called him to let him know where she was going.
Thanks for sharing what you saw at Saturday’s protests in Philly, @kslouf.
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