Feds charge West Philly activist, teacher with arson

Protesters gather at the Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters during a rally

Protesters gather at the Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters during a rally Sunday May 31, 2020, in Philadelphia over the police killing of George Floyd. (Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Updated: 4:45 p.m.

Amid a second wave of civil unrest over police brutality, federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges against three men for allegedly setting a Philadelphia police car on fire during a May demonstration, including prominent activist Anthony Smith.

In a separate indictment also unsealed on Thursday, a Virginia man is charged with setting a state police car on fire while it was parked near an entrance to the Vine Street Expressway.

All four men are charged with arson and face a mandatory minimum of seven years in prison if convicted.

“It is part of our job to protect First Amendment freedoms. And we take that responsibility very seriously. But violence is not speech. There is no right to riot, rob, commit arson or destroy, ” said U.S. Attorney Wiliam McSwain during a news conference.

Specific details are scant in both indictments, which each tie back to protests held on May 30, the first full day of demonstrations in Philadelphia following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Prosecutors allege that Smith, 29, Carlos Matchett, 30, and Khalif Miller, 25, helped destroy a police vehicle part of the department’s Civil Affairs Unit while it was parked outside City Hall near Broad and Market streets.

Smith, Matchett and Miller allegedly placed “combustible materials” in the vehicle after a road flare placed in the car started a fire.

The indictment does not say whether any of the men directly set the car ablaze or assisted those who did. The document also doesn’t detail how authorities identified any of the suspects or whether the men were working together.

Smith, Matchett and Miller are all in custody. In addition to arson, the men are charged with obstructing law enforcement in the commission of their duties during a civil disorder.

McSwain said his office will seek to detain the trio until trial. He added that none of the men were targeted by federal prosecutors, especially Smith, a social studies teacher at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School and a well-respected organizer with Philly for REAL Justice.

“We do not investigate people at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We investigate alleged criminal behavior. A defendant’s race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation or group membership make no difference to me or to anybody else in my office,” said McSwain.

Philly for REAL Justice condemned Smith’s arrest in a statement on Thursday.

“After two nights of mass arrests and police brutality against community members calling for justice for Walter Wallace, seeing Federal charges brought against a movement leader like Anthony is sickening,” Smith’s friend James Miles is quoted as saying in the organization’s statement. “All this makes you wonder, ‘Is the Federal government arresting and charging movement leaders to try to scare the rest of us?”

Smith is also a plaintiff in one of three civil rights lawsuits filed in July over police use of force in anti-police brutality demonstrations in West Philadelphia and on Interstate 676. Smith, who lives near 52nd Street, told WHYY News he was arrested on the night of May 31 and driven around for about four hours before he was finally given a citation before being out past a city-mandated curfew.

Smith’s attorney Paul Hetznecker called the charges “blatantly political.”

The timing of the unsealed indictment — less than a week before the presidential election — highlights that fact, he said.

“Without getting into the specifics of this, there needs to be a longer look at the efforts by law enforcement to target, surveil and investigate those that they believe to be the leaders of progressive political protest movements,” said Hetznecker.

In the second case, prosecutors allege that Ayoub Tabri, 24, of Arlington, Virginia, threw a lit road flare into a state police car tasked with blocking protesters from entering I-676. This after a group of individuals allegedly smashed the vehicle’s windows and stole police equipment from inside, including road flares, fire extinguishers and “riot bags.”

The group also attacked a second state police car, said McSwain.

A grand jury charged Tabri with two counts of arson and one count of obstructing law enforcement in the commission of their duties during a civil disorder.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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