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Protesters spark chaotic scene at Lawncrest town meeting

Activists upset over the Brandon Tate-Brown case co-opted an event organized to discuss policing in the Northeast Philly community.

When the Lawncrest town hall meeting started protesters moved in on the panel, with the Police Commissioner and the DA, a melee ensued resulting in about a dozen arrests on Mar. 19, 2015.        ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
When the Lawncrest town hall meeting started protesters moved in on the panel, with the Police Commissioner and the DA, a melee ensued resulting in about a dozen arrests on Mar. 19, 2015. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )Read more

A POWDER KEG of emotion and frustration exploded last night, and its blast decimated a town-hall meeting featuring some of the city's top officials.

"I understand there is a strained relationship, but what we saw today is embarrassing," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said in the wake of a melee between protesters and police in the Lawncrest Recreation Center, on Rising Sun Avenue near Comly Street.

When the dust had settled, 10 people were taken into custody and were later charged with disorderly conduct, police said.

"They have an issue, but this isn't the way of going about it," Ramsey said. "We are not talking with one another. We're shouting at each other."

State Rep. Mark Cohen had planned the gathering weeks in advance, inviting Ramsey, District Attorney Seth Williams, and Rodney Muhammad, the newly minted leader of the city's chapter of the NAACP.

The timing couldn't have been worse.

The plan for the evening was to discuss policing in the tight-knit Northeast Philly community and address the concerns of its residents, upset over its uptick in violent crime in recent years.

Cohen had no way of knowing that hours before the meeting was set to kick off, Williams would announce that his office would not bring charges against the officers who fatally shot Brandon Tate-Brown during a car stop on Dec. 15.

The powder keg was primed.

So when Cohen took the microphone last night, asking the attendees to quiet down and take their seats, he wasn't prepared for the deluge of anger.

About 30 people standing at the rear of the rec center produced signs with Tate-Brown's name. They booed Ramsey and Williams and chanted, "Shame!"

Some protesters approached the table where the panelists - including Daily News Editor Michael Days - were seated. There the protesters stood, inches from Ramsey and Williams, and screamed, pointing their fingers at two of the most powerful officials in Philadelphia.

And they made demands.

They wanted Ramsey to release the names of the officers involved in Tate-Brown's death, and they wanted to view the footage of the 25-year-old's encounter with police that night at Frankford Avenue near Magee in Mayfair.

Officers watching in the wings tried to push the group back so that the meeting they co-opted could take place.

The powder keg exploded.

It was all noise and movement, limbs flailing, folding chairs sent flying. Pockets of conflict kept breaking out, with uniformed officers escorting wailing men and women into the street.

Ultimately, 10 of the group's members were loaded into police vans and ushered away.

Ramsey couldn't understand why the outburst was necessary.

"If lives matter so much, we have to sit down and have a discussion about how to end violence," he said, noting that 52 people have been slain in the city this year, including Sgt. Robert Wilson III.

"That's the kind of thoughtful discussion we need, not what we saw tonight - when they're ready to sit down and do that, that's how we'll make inroads."

The city's top cop said the violent reaction to Williams' announcement about the Tate-Brown case yesterday is exactly why he won't release the name of the officers involved in the young man's death.

"If we had reasonable people acting in a reasonable manner, it'd be different," he said. "But when we have people who act like this, I'm not going to put my officers and their families in harm's way."

Taylor Johnson, an activist with the group Black Lives Matter, bristled at that suggestion. She said her group "would use that information to help develop a case for prosecution."

"Our only goal tonight was to shake people up with those questions and remind people that we still have those questions," she said outside the rec center.

"I find it interesting that [Ramsey] was talking about safety in response to a simple question that people need to know the answer to, that Tanya needs to know the answer to," she said, referring to Tate-Brown's mother, who did not attend.

"I think a lot of people are now worried about their safety."

Back inside the center, the meeting eventually started in earnest. It resembled countless other town-hall meetings: People asking questions about security cameras, absentee landlords and police patrols.

But there was a palpable tinge of frustration from some of Lawncrest's longtime residents.

"We're a struggling community trying to come back from 12 murders last year, and we're trying to make it a good place to live," said Kathy Wersinger, a lifelong Lawncrest resident and a member of its community association.

"Not one of those people tonight was asking about Officer Wilson, and that's a disgrace," she said. "Our officers put their lives on the line every day. They don't deserve this."