A rally Saturday on Independence Mall that had been hyped online as having the potential to attract white supremacists or other violence-prone hate groups was instead a duel of political demonstrations that passed largely without incident but included two fights and four arrests.
About 35 conservatives gathered for a "We the People" rally inside a barricaded area on the north side of Market Street, with some attendees carrying American flags or wearing Trump-related regalia.
On the south side of Market, several hundred counterprotesters denounced white supremacy and bigotry in a gathering that felt at times like a street festival. Attendees frequently chanted, sang, and sometimes danced as a Sousaphone player belted out tunes including the Action News theme song. Many attendees carried signs saying "No racism, sexism, fascism" or addressing related themes.
The competing rallies featured only sporadic tensions, and did not include widespread violence fueled by right-wing hate groups, as some activists had predicted.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross said four people were arrested, including a 23-year-old man who allegedly got into a fight on the north end of Independence Mall as the protests wound down and punched a responding police captain. The others arrested were a 31-year-old woman for disorderly conduct, a 35-year-old man for failure to disperse, and a 26-year-old man for failure to disperse and marijuana possession. Their names were not released.
The news site Billy Penn reported that another man was assaulted at Fifth and Market Streets when counterprotesters mistakenly labeled him a Nazi and a Proud Boy. A GoFundMe page that says it was established by Philadelphia leftist organizations in Philadelphia apologized to the victim and said it was raising money to help his recovery.
The day's events began around 10:30 a.m., when a line of police used their bicycles to force about 100 counterprotesters to the south side of Market Street, away from the site of the anticipated conservative rally. One person was arrested after refusing to move, police said. Officers then stood in a line throughout the day to separate the counterprotesters from those attending the rally.
Christian Debuque, who did not want to give his age but said he lives in Philadelphia, said: "We came because we wanted to let the alt-right and neo-Nazis know that they're not welcome in Philly."
Jim O'Connor, 49, and Melanie Fortino, 50, of Newtown, Bucks County, said they wanted to show their opposition to bigotry and hatred. They held an LGBT flag and another flag saying: "Resist."
"Certain things are right," Fortino said, "and certain things are wrong."
O'Connor said that although the event had attracted plenty of social-media attention, "you've got to actually be there" to show support.
Around 11 a.m., the conservative group began their demonstration on the lawn on the north side of Market, as people took turns speaking on a microphone about the United States and the Constitution. At least five people held American flags, two had Trump flags, and one had a "Don't Tread on Me" flag. No Confederate flags were seen.
Ted Chmielnicki, 39, asked the crowd: "What is the greatest country in the world?" Most responded by yelling, "USA! USA!"
Chmielnicki, who wore an American flag bandanna on his head, said he and his wife had come to Philadelphia from near Fayetteville, N.C., to attend the rally to show their support for the organizers, one of whom he knew.
"We're not here to fight," he said. "We're here to do exactly what we said we'd do," which he described as celebrating the Constitution.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd of counterprotesters continued to swell, reaching several hundred people. At least two carried "Antifascist Action" flags, and others had banners, but the event took on a nonpolitical and almost festive tone. People wore knitted Gritty hats and Gritty shirts to celebrate the new Flyers mascot (which also has been adopted as a meme by some Antifa antifascist groups), four attendees carried Gritty signs, one man wore a butterfly-wing cape, and musicians performed with Sousaphones, piccolo, and drums.
Nearby, at the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel synagogue, on Fourth Street between Market and Arch, about 35 people were worshiping at the regular weekly Shabbat service in progress — "in defiance," said one congregant who didn't want to be identified.
"We have to love," said Rabbi Albert Gabbai. "Love leads in many directions. Without love is hatred, which only has one path — to violence."
As the protests ended around 2 p.m., at least two minor skirmishes erupted but were brought under control by police. Several counterprotesters shouted "Nazis zero, Philly one!" as the event fizzled out. As police escorted some of the remaining rally attendees into the Independence Visitor Center, other counterprotesters chanted, "Don't come back!" and rang cowbells.
Holly Delcampo, who helped organize the conservative gathering, said that she believed the event went "fairly well" and that she was happy it had resulted in no major confrontations.
Update, Nov. 19: An earlier version of this article reported “no indication” that neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or members of other alleged hate groups attended Saturday’s rallies. Photos of the event show individuals wearing shirts with the Three Percenters insignia, and social media posts claim that several attendees were associated with the Proud Boys.