The plan was to compare crowds - those outside the Park Hyatt where President Bush was delivering a progress report on the Iraq war, and those at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where hawkish Democratic Congressman John Murtha was handing out a grade of F.
I got as far as the Italian Bistro on Broad Street. I was tucked in a corner, wondering who these scores of protesters were - socialists? labor? students? Quakers? - when chilling words shot through through the crowd: "waving his gun" and "got out his billy club" and "he just had a bottle of iced tea."
A small woman in a long coat and purple headscraf stood alone on the sidewalk, trembling. Tears filled her eyes. Aisha K. El Mekki said she had come in from West Philadelphia to protest the war with her two grown sons and two grandsons. Now the older men were missing, taken away by police. And the grandchildren were shaken. The crowd was still buzzing, like overhead wires after a trolley.
She had been walking ahead of her 15-year-old grandson, along the east side of Broad Street, about 12:30 p.m. Monday when people - maybe three of them - closed in on the boy. He was carrying a glass jar filled with hot lemonade. It was cold outside, in the high 30s. Apparently, police were worried about what he had in his hand.
The boy's father, Sharif El Mekki, 34, asked what was happening, she said. Two witnesses - a tennis coach from Cherry Hill named Jay Lassiter, 33, and an accountant from Upper Darby named Betsey Piette, 56 - backed the mother's story that a man in plain clothes grabbed him and then a policewoman in uniform approached and started swinging her club.
The plainclothesman had El Mekki in some sort of hold," the mother said. "I tried to pull him away. I said, 'Don't hit him. He didn't do anything." His 32-year old brother, Mikyeil, tried to help.
An hour later, she called the paper: Sharif was in the lock-up at the 9th Police District. His brother had been taken to the hospital. She was hysterical.
A Civil Affairs captain told Inquirer reporter Bob Moran he'd check into the disturbance. He said he saw two men being loaded into the police wagon. "Neither appeared traumatized," he said.
Later, Inspector Bill Colarulo said that the man taken to the hospital was treated for "a prior injury." He faces no charges. But his brother will be charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.
I never did get to see Murtha's crowd. And I have no idea which version of events is the closer one - just a lingering image, of a 5 year-old boy looking stoic on the sidewalk as he held tight to a glass of Blackwell apple jam, filled with now-cold lemonade.
UPDATE: Friday, Dec. 12, a judge dismissed aggravated assault charges against Sharif El Mekki for lack of evidence. Bob Moran reports:
El-Mekki, of West Philadelphia, is principal of Anna H. Shaw Middle School at 54th Street and Warrington Avenue. He had been temporarily reassigned to the district's central office pending the outcome of the court case, said Paul Vallas, school district chief executive. El-Mekki decided to take some personal days off instead.
Vallas called El-Mekki a "terrific principal" and said his job is not in jeopardy. Vallas expressed sympathy for El-Mekki's actions on Monday.
"I don't know how I would have reacted if my kid were pushed or knocked down," Vallas said.