Center City: Demonstrators Rally, March Onto I-676 to Protest Police Violence

Protesters hold signs and banners in front of City Hall, Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Center City. City Council members responded to 2020's protests with a push for police reform (Jordan Holycross/PN).

Hundreds of people marched onto Interstate 676 on Sunday, July 5 as part of a march protesting police violence and the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray during demonstrations that took place across Philadelphia just over a month ago.

The protest, which began at 1 p.m. with a rally in front of City Hall, followed numerous others that have taken place across the country in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, Philadelphia city officials have faced widespread public criticism over the use of nonlethal methods to police recent protests.

The mayor’s office and the Philadelphia Police Department made national headlines after police trapped nonviolent protesters between a fence and a highway before shooting tear-gas canisters into the crowd and using pepper spray at close range. Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw have since apologized during a press conference on June 25 for the way the incident on June 1 was handled and have halted the use of tear gas and pepper spray on nonviolent civilians.

“My best friend was tear gassed, and he saw a legal observer get purposefully tear gassed,” Zoe Sturges, a protester and Philadelphia teacher, said in reference to the events on June 1. “I’m out here today because the police brutalize my students, they brutalize my family, and I want it to end.”

Zoe Sturgis holds a sign that reads, “COPS tried to CUFF my kindergartener” during a march on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Center City.

Organizers of Sunday’s protest declared that the City’s response wasn’t enough. Speakers from organizations including the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s Philadelphia branch, Melanated Educators Collective, and Socialist Alternative Philly demanded Kenney’s resignation and for PPD’s funding to be entirely redirected to services such as housing and education.

The demonstration’s event page called the police’s use of nonlethal methods “a calculated move to help crush the nationwide uprising against racist police terror.”

Dana Carter, a Philadelphia teacher and member of the Melanated Educators Collective, said Kenney and the Philadelphia Board of Education perpetuated systems of policing and white supremacy in schools, rather than directing resources to educate students.

“The School District of Philadelphia is as complicit in gun violence as those individuals who pull the trigger,” she said. “These children who are dying out in the streets due to gun violence were once children in Philadelphia schools, who were passed along with F’s and D’s, and received no intervention or support. This is why we fight.”

Protesters gather for a rally organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s Philadelphia branch, Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Center City.

Participants at the protest were diverse in both race and age, and the vast majority wore masks. Some protesters came with their children. Many brought eye protection, umbrellas, and first aid in case the situation between protesters and police escalated.

Kayla Watkins, a member of Party for Socialism and Liberation, spoke to the crowd about tensions between the community and police.

“[Philadelphia Police officers] spend 16 hours training on community policing and meditative practices,” she said. “But they spend 60 hours training how to aim their gun at your head. And I’m supposed to feel protected by these people?”

By 1:15 p.m., Philadelphia Police had blocked off streets surrounding City Hall as well as parts of I-676. Dozens of officers mounted on bikes waited along JFK Boulevard, prepared to follow the march. As protesters fanned out across Broad Street, officers flanked the crowd on either side while a police helicopter hovered overhead. A handful of police officers from the department’s Audio-Visual Unit recorded the crowd with cameras and camcorders.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s Audio-Visual Unit records protesters as they enter Interstate 676, Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Center City.

“Do you feel protected by [the police]?” Watkins asked the protesters. “Do you know these people? We don’t know what neighborhoods they come from. We don’t know their training.”

Once protesters reached Vine Street, they were met with a dump truck from the city’s Streets Department and barricades blocking the entrances to I-676. A contingent of protesters hopped the barricades and squeezed past the truck, trickling onto the empty interstate, while others cheered from the overpass.

“The pigs don’t want us to take this freeway,” said a protester through a megaphone. “We pay for this freeway, and the people are going to stand on it. We’re going to sit, we’re going to yell.”

Police kept their distance as the march continued west toward the underpass where SWAT officers trapped and tear-gassed protesters on June 1.

Brothers Callum and Séamus Wilson participated in the June 1 protest and came out on Sunday to demonstrate again. Callum said the excessive amount of tear gas that day exacerbated his asthma. Séamus, whose arm was in a sling, said a tear-gas canister hit and fractured his elbow. Both admitted to being somewhat nervous but optimistic.

“The people are stronger than the government and the police,” Séamus Wilson said. “If people get together and demand change, that change will come.”

Philadelphia Police Officers follow protesters as they march on North Broad Street toward Interstate 676, Sunday, July 5, 2020 in Center City.

Once the march reached the Benjamin Franklin Parkway exit, participants maneuvered around another Streets Department dump truck and rejoined the main group along 22nd Street. Police scrambled to redirect traffic along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the demonstrators passed the Franklin Institute on their way toward Love Park.

Organizers continued to lead chants, demanding justice for the Black lives lost at the hands of police.

“No good cops in a racist system!” said an organizer through a megaphone.

“No one’s free in a racist system!” the crowd chanted back.

Sturges wants Kenney and City Council to do more to address police brutality in schools.

“The budget [the Philadelphia Board of Education] passed, it ‘reformed’ school safety officers, but it just gave them a different job title,” she said. “It actually increased their budget to get new uniforms and didn’t fire a single one of them, despite the fact that they’ve assaulted many children.”

After the demonstration concluded back at City Hall, Sturges stood in front of a row of officers and spoke to them through a megaphone.

“Not one more of my students is getting arrested before their 12th birthday,” she said. “I’m asking our mayor, I’m asking our school board, I’m asking our police department, who are you here for?”

By 3:15 p.m., the crowd began to disperse. No injuries were reported and no arrests were made.

As things wound down, organizers passed out bottled water and flyers. A group of kids on bikes rode around City Hall.

“[Those in power] want us to pick and choose who we take down,” said organizer Mecca Bullock. “We’re here to say, we’re not taking down just one person, one a fleet of congressmen, or the president. We’re taking down America. We’re taking back our country.”

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