This story originally appeared on PA Post.
Hannah Silbaugh decided to stay in the street.
“We were protesting what the cops were doing and I wasn’t going to comply with them saying to leave,” Silbaugh said. “I wanted to exercise my right to peaceful protest. And I was 100 percent peaceful.”
— Nick / nak5132 🍐 (@the7goonies) May 31, 2020
The choice led to her being kicked to the ground. Multiple people captured the kick on video, and her case quickly gained national attention, thanks to social media.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and others condemned the police officer’s action after seeing the video.
“This level of unnecessary use of force, along with all other instances of it across Pennsylvania yesterday, is unacceptable and diminishes us all,” Fetterman wrote on Twitter late Sunday afternoon.
One video from the incident had 5 million views on Twitter shortly before 9:30 p.m. Sunday. It’s a two second video, showing an officer in riot gear and a protective helmet kicking Silbaugh as she sits covering her face. A longer video — which shows more of the street — appears to show officers spraying Silbaugh and multiple other people with some type of eye-irritant spray.
The Saturday evening demonstration in Erie was one of many taking place across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he begged for air.
Silbaugh, a 21-year-old Erie resident who works as a manager at a retail store, said she wanted to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s very important to me because, yes, I am white, and yes, I have the privilege,” she said, “but there are .. blacks folks and (persons of color) that are dying and being injured by the hands of police brutality. And I think we all need to stand up.”
She said she arrived at the protest around 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. She said the crowd “was rowdy, but they weren’t violent.”
But the situation got worse.
Silbaugh said she thinks the actions of police officers escalated the tension.
The Erie City Police Department in a statement said the peaceful protest turned into a riot “when about 400 people descended on Erie City Hall.” The statement said protesters pounded on the doors, spray painted the building and shattered windows.
The department said officers gave multiple warnings and released colored smoke, before calling in the SWAT team.
At one point, Silbaugh said she and some other demonstrators positioned themselves between police in riot gear and a larger group of protesters.
She said police told them to move, but she chose not to. She said police sprayed some type of chemical — she wasn’t sure if it was mace or pepper spray. The others who were with her left.
“But I decided to stay seated,” Silbaugh said.
Silbaugh said she held her hands up in front of her eyes to protect herself from the chemical officers used. She stayed sitting. And then she felt herself hitting the ground — she didn’t understand why until later.
She said police told her that if she didn’t move, she would be tazed. She said she ran to the nearest side street to look for a bottle of water.
“At that point, I was so discombobulated. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
A stranger gave her a bottle of water, so she could wash her eyes out. It seemed to her that there was more violence occurring in the streets, and she decided she wasn’t safe there.
She went home and checked her phone and social media to look for updates and to see if everyone was safe. Then she saw a short video of a police officer kicking a person who was sitting on the ground.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s me,’” she said.
She looked at more posts and found a longer video. Watching it felt different than experiencing it the first time. When she was in the street, she was confused, and knew she was being pushed around and sprayed. But the video gave her a clearer understanding of what happened.
“It was really kind of an out of body experience because that’s the things that I’ve been seeing on the news,” she said. “And it happened to me, and it was just absolutely insane to see that happen.”
Silbaugh said she stayed up all night. She didn’t go to an emergency room.
After a few hours, she called a number for poison control because she still felt a “really horrible burning sensations” and was told to wait it out. She tried putting in contact lenses Sunday morning but it was too painful.
She said she took cold showers to try to help, but even on Sunday evening she said she still felt the burning sensation in her arms and hands. She felt sore, especially where her body hit the ground. She said she had some bruises, but with all the chaos of the night, she wasn’t certain what caused them.
A statement from the Erie City Police Department didn’t directly address Silbaugh’s case, but said police have “several hundreds of hours of videos to watch” and would review them. The department invited anyone who would like to make a formal complaint to do so.
The police department said more than a dozen officers suffered injuries “from bruises, cuts and scrapes, to gashes and burns.” The department said the riot gear officers wore prevented them from being seriously injured or killed.
“(W)hile our officers were being hit with bricks, rocks, water bottles, and fireworks, they just took it all. They showed a lot of restraint, held the line, and did not fire a single shot,” the department said.
Pennsylvania State Police and the Millcreek Police Department assisted.
In a news conference early Sunday evening, Erie Mayor Joe Schember said 11 businesses in downtown Erie were “hurt very badly,” and he described fire damage and broken windows there.
Schember said he saw a video of a police officer striking Silbaugh, and that the city would investigate the case.
“Obviously, it’s very brief. I know for a fact that police tried to get her to move very politely for quite a while,” Schember said. “Their line could not move beyond until she moved.”
Schember said she wasn’t doing anything wrong, “but she was preventing the police from stopping the people behind her.”]
At another point in the news conference, Schember called it “a terrible video.”
The city has not identified the officer who is shown in the video striking Silbaugh. Frank Strumila, a media strategist for the city, said the investigation is ongoing.
On Sunday evening, Silbaugh said she had not reached out to the police department, and she wasn’t sure if she would file a formal complaint or take any other action. She was grateful for all the support she has received.
“I have received an outpouring of love,” she said. “…I have hundreds of people, you know, checking on me, making sure that I’m OK.”