This was the first weekend after the murder of George Floyd and protests erupted across the country. Philly was no exception. No matter where you were within Center City, Philadelphia, protesters claimed the streets and vocalized the frustrations of 400+ years of slavery, oppression, police brutality, and racism.
In Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country and home to a large and historically mistreated black population, it was seemingly inevitable that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were going to hit our streets. The city of brotherly love is no stranger to public displays of discrimination against their black population, whether it’s calling the cops on black men sitting in a Starbucks or dragging black men off of the bus during the Covid-19 pandemic – so it came as no surprise people flooded the roadways in anger when the opportunity arose.
Being a fairly new resident to the city and a man of color myself, my participation in the movement wasn’t up for question. It was my intention to ensure my presence was to be felt and my voice not to be silenced because at the end of the day, my life, like all other black lives, matter.
I was unable to attend the protests that day due to prior engagements but was present to watch a lot of it unfold. Shortly put, the city went up in flames. I knew that my time to protest would come, I just didn’t know what would come with it.
Monday. It was the start of the week but felt like the start of something much more. The BLM movement was more empowered and widespread than ever. You could feel the tense nature of the social climate just stepping outside. Damaged buildings, enhanced police presence, the remanence of burned police vehicles, and random and strictly enforced curfews morphed the city into something unrecognizable. It felt less like home and more like a war zone. With tensions at a relative peak, it was far more important for our impact to be solidified and at 3 pm that afternoon, I had my opportunity.
The protest began on the east side of the city directly in front of a police precinct. The front was lined with officers in uniform, seemingly disinterested in and disconnected with what we had to say.
Our journey that day began with powerful speeches from black community leaders and after 20 minutes of embracing their words, we were energized and ready to take the town.
We marched through one of the busiest streets in Philadelphia guided by police officers on bikes. At this point, they were our guide. Based on demeanor alone, it was easy to tell many would rather be elsewhere.
Through the different stages of the protest, I was able to see the depth of struggle between the police force and the people they swore to serve and protect.
The first instance of this came at a blockade. Ten minutes into our march, the officers guiding us suddenly stopped with no indication of why. They lined the street in front of us. Their intentions were unknown as the communication was one-sided, but nonetheless we stood in unity, hands in the air screaming “I Can’t Breathe” — the same words echoed by many of those slain by the hands of the police.
One of our protestors attempted to cross the blockade to try and continue the march as the police again didn’t state their intentions. It wasn’t how he crossed that punctuated the moment, it was who he crossed. The protestor, a young black male, attempted to cross in front of a black police officer.
The protestor stuck his leg over the parked bike of the officer and was quickly met with force. The officer shoved him back, so we prepped and readied for another test. The look of fear and adrenaline in his eyes amplified the moment as for him, the look was one of life or death. With a crowd staring the police officer down, cursing his profession he was met with a challenger and swiftly dealt with it as if he was expecting more. Luckily for everyone, he was the only one that attempted such a feat.
My first thought was to look for justification in the situation. Was it the traffic that we held up previously, so they needed to stop us? Did they want to derail our movement? Or is it something completely different? The lack of communication from the officers left us uneasy and swarmed with uncertainty. This interaction sparked a greater interest in the intersectionality that is a black male police officer and no more than 10 minutes later I would have my chance to inquire further.
As we rounded City Hall, we were met with a horde of officers and military forces fully armed with assault rifles and riot gear. Behind them sat the remains of the cop car that set the city aflame just days prior. Despite the city debris behind them, the officers seemed calm, even lax, which in turn shifted my mood. Still fed by the adrenaline of the previous cop interaction and the interactions that dominated the news cycle of recent weeks, I was enraged and immensely dissatisfied. Yet, with my level of activism still at a stage of relative infancy and my knowledge of the issue at hand far from complete, I took the opportunity while on the ground to learn more.
My friend and I came across two isolated uniformed officers behind a fence and asked if it was okay for us to ask them a couple of questions. At this point, we were completely separated from the protest as it continued to rage on behind us. I knew that this occasion was momentous and was extremely careful about the wording of my questions. I didn’t want to ignite any problems or send the wrong message because at this time, we were alone; we were the vulnerable ones here. We weren’t armed and we didn’t have back up, but we were curious. Not only was this a unique opportunity to speak with uniformed officers during a protest, these officers were also black.
This is what they had to say:
“What are you doing to hold your fellow officers accountable?”
“I can only control what’s in my area so it doesn’t have anything to do with me, that’s above my pay grade.”
“When you put on that badge, you are representing what is seen as the opposition to this movement. As black men how do you feel about that?”
“I don’t see it that way. That’s not true… You won’t understand.”
“What are your views on the George Floyd situation as both a black man and as a police officer?”
“I mean… what they did is wrong and they are gonna get punished, but what they do in Minnesota doesn’t have anything to do with me. I can’t change what they do.”
It’s an understatement to say I was extremely gutted and furious by their responses and lack of accountability. They wanted a platform to speak. In the midst of their pandering, they emphasized how we didn’t understand and that we don’t see both sides. Despite the presence of a dialogue about the issue and the opportunity to speak their minds without cameras or microphones, they produced monotoned half-answers and effectively poured fuel on the fire. By no means are they inclined or even obligated to entertain us for the questions that we had, but they did and took the opportunity to dig themselves deeper and highlight problems with police forces that we, the public, know all too well. Rather than waste more time, we let them be and caught up with the rest of the protest.
With more than an hour gone and thousands flooding the city streets in harmony and protest, we walked towards what we thought was the final step of our protest.
As we neared the famous “Rocky Steps” our crowd detoured left down onto the highway. Interstate 676 runs right under the city of Philadelphia as a direct passage through the city. Within minutes, we had the eastbound lane at a standstill.
A large majority remain above on the city streets, including me, but no matter where you were at that moment, you wouldn’t have expected what came next.
Within minutes our group was overlooked by 5 helicopters (both police and news related) and a plethora of armored vehicles.
My group on top stood our ground against the militarized vehicle with echoes of “hands up, don’t shoot” ringing throughout the air.
With no communication from the police at this time, we weren’t aware of their intentions so we stood. We waited. And then, we were surrounded. Police cars, vans and buses paired with armored vehicles and soldiers cornered protestors on the highway while we dealt with their remaining forces.
At this point, no threats were made and no violence had occurred, but Philadelphia PD turned its back on its citizens.
The top hatch of the armored vehicle slowly opened and a flashbang came out, startling the crowd. It was a small act of intimidation, but we reconstructed our shape and stood strong.
The hatch opened again.
One lone tear gas canister rolled out, gassing a few in front but protesters quickly mobilized with water and a cone to put it out. One went as far as to kick the empty canister at the vehicle. It missed, but the statement stood to show them we were here to stay, protest, and protect our rights.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
The top hatch opened up and at random tear gas came flying out of the vehicle striking most, if not all, within a 50-yard radius, including us. Makeshift medics decorated in makeshift medic shirts and duct-tape crosses came to the aid of all of those that got hit, carrying water, milk and contact solution.
Before we had time to react, the side hatch popped open and a gun emerged from the vehicle. Rubber bullets started to fly, and two guys in front of me were hit in the leg. We tried to flee to a safe distance, but saw downed, gassed protestors in need of assistance so we did what we could to help. It was a team effort all around. It was unspoken, but we all knew we were in this together.
Spread across the boulevard, bridge and highway were protestors screaming in agony and running in fear in every direction.
Ten minutes seemed like an eternity, but a lull began to form amongst the crowd. Bullets were no longer flying and the tear gas evaporated. All that was left were the cries of the hundreds of protestors who couldn’t escape the police down on the highway. Their belongings confiscated and their arms zip tied. We all surrounded them up above looking down on the distinct violation of rights in disgust and anguish. The actions that started the fire were the same ones to keep it burning.
A squad of about a dozen officers enclosed in the highway overpass strap on their gear and ready up with hundreds already cuffed and loaded onto the bus. Surrounded by our chants and jeers they continued their acts of aggression towards the vulnerable.
With both hands visible and in possession of my phone, I attempted to record what I saw down below me. As a panned right, my friend (who was also on my right) said something that haunts me to this day.
“Why is he pointing that thing at us?”
No more than 10 feet away sat an armored office with his gun pointed directly at our heads and his finger on the trigger. We screamed “don’t shoot, you don’t have to do this” with our eyes locked to the inside of his barrel. We ducked behind the concrete divider and hoped he got cold feet and went away. One girl who was in complete shambles because her sister was detained on the highway saw us hiding and spotted the officer and his gun aimed at her. She dove and hid with us, all of us praying we weren’t going to be next. We were lucky that the officer didn’t shoot. For once, they listened.
After a couple of minutes passed, we regained some composure and started to mobilize again. Officers down below started firing shots into the crowd forcing us to disperse. As we turned, a dozen cop cars ambushed the boulevard surrounding frantic protestors and scattering the rest.
One car split from the rest and was met by a small group of protestors. As we watched from a distance, this group impeded the progress of the car. The chants were reignited.
“Hands up, don’t shoot.” “Black Lives Matter.”
In an incredible feat, the movement gained traction as others started to join. We still had fight left in us. We still had power. We still had our voice.
The vehicle switched to reverse and, powered by the weight of our presence, it retreated to the remaining group of cop cars. The inspiration raged within all of us and we were prepped to go again until the cops brought in more reinforcements.
With everyone scattered, more armored vehicles took the opportunity to speed into the picture and set up shop at the eye of our protest. Once set, an armed officer exited and launched two more cans of tear gas followed by the sporadic firing of his weapon. And yet, the reinforcements never seemed to stop. Despite the absence of looting, vandalism, and violence, the Philadelphia PD made the conscious choice to use banned military weapons from their bulky budgets and assistance from militarized personnel to fire upon, terrorize, violate and abuse their citizens. And at that moment, the point was made. The visions of what occurred that day were drilled into the minds of all that were affected and remains yet another painstakingly relevant blemish on the city’s treatment of its citizens. Thankfully, to my knowledge, no lives were lost as there shouldn’t be. Citizens shouldn’t be subject to the fear of death and banned military weapons just to express their rights to protest.
To put all of this into perspective, this happened a block from where I live; along my path to work. A path where I pass frequently. It was transformed into a playground for those who are sworn to protect and serve to flex their muscles and show off their toys.
Two blocks away is a police precinct and it’s the space where I feel the least safe. I avoid it at all costs. Police sirens no longer sound the same. They ring with a vengeance as if we were wrong to protest, as if it’s our fault we were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. It’s our rights and our lives that need saving and Philly PD aren’t the ones to do it.
Since that day, Philadelphia has had protests daily all over the city. Every one of them swarmed with excessive police presence. June 3rd, just 2 days later, a protest passed my apartment window and I sat and counted the amount of police that were present. For a crowd of approximately 800-1000 people, there were: 12 cop cars in front, 10 officers on bikes in front, 10 officers on bikes right behind the crowd and following them were 39 other police vehicles including an armored swat vehicle, 4 swat trucks, a police bus, 4 police vans and a helicopter.
The police presence is quickly felt as you now pass through the streets of Philadelphia, but I promise you our presence is greater. Despite the excessive use of force, their scare tactics have not silenced us.
Presence alone won’t get this over the finish line and we have a long way to go. My story is far from unique as instances of police brutality have a plague in the existence of Americans dating back to when it was originally formed to catch slaves. Police as a concept, as an entity, as a well-funded gang, have to be eradicated, as no human being should have to be tormented exercising their rights to protest. No human being should face scrutiny or death due to the color of their skin.
To those who are no longer with us and for those that will be, we march for you. We all have to do our part in order to ignite change. There is no one right way to do so but, if you need a place to start, listen close. It’s of the essence to stand up to racism, injustice and police brutality whenever you see, feel or hear it because all lives can’t matter until BLACK LIVES MATTER.