‘He’s nonviolent’: Friends, family of arrested West Philly activist rally to rebuke federal charges

Activist and school teacher Anthony Smith was arrested Wednesday on federal charges. Friends say it’s a political stunt and that he’s innocent.

Anthony Smith’s friend Jasmine Peake recalled meeting Smith on her first day of college at a protest demanding the release of the Philadelphia activist. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Anthony Smith’s friend Jasmine Peake recalled meeting Smith on her first day of college at a protest demanding the release of the Philadelphia activist. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Federal authorities say West Philadelphia activist Anthony “Ant” Smith, 29, “aided and abetted” in the arson of a Philadelphia police car.

His friends and activist peers say the charges are a fabrication — and they gathered en masse Friday morning to “humanize” the man that they believe has been falsely accused as part of a political stunt.

“He’s nonviolent,” said Smith’s cousin, Devon Gooden. “He’s never been anyone who would be of the character that sets cars on fire or do anything crazy. I think he speaks with his pen.”

Huddled under a gazebo at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, speakers painted Smith, a North Philadelphia social studies teacher, as an ardent activist, caring educator, and empathetic friend. Before a crowd of at least 100 supporters, they forcefully rejected the notion that Smith could be involved in the crimes alleged by federal authorities.

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“It’s almost unbelievable how selfless and caring he is,” said Jasmine Peake, a friend who met Smith in college. “His love for his community, his family, and his friends is insurmountable and unconditional.”

Peake said Smith splits time between preparing lesson plans for his students at YouthBuild Charter School and doing community service. Speakers highlighted Smith’s efforts as part of a group that hands out weekly meals in West Philadelphia.

“Sometime it seems like he’s in three or four places at once,” Peake said.

Anthony Smith during a Philadelphia protest in September 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

True to form, Smith is linked in several ways to the protests that erupted in Philadelphia this summer following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He’s the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that alleges Philadelphia police used undue force when they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters along the city’s 52nd Street corridor.

More recently, Smith earned kudos in Philadelphia Magazine for his work with the organization Philly for REAL Justice.

On Wednesday, Smith was one of four men arrested and charged in connection with the alleged torching of a Philadelphia police car during the George Floyd protests.

The indictment does not say how Smith is connected to the alleged incident, and lays out few details.

If convicted, Smith and his co-defendants face a minimum of seven years in prison. U.S. Attorney William McSwain is seeking to hold all four in custody until their trials.

While announcing the arrests Thursday, McSwain — who has framed himself as a champion of law enforcement and openly challenged the work of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner — denied any political motive in Smith’s arrest.

“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,” McSwain said.

Smith’s attorney, Paul Hetznecker, claimed the opposite, calling the charges “blatantly political.”

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On Friday, Smith’s supporters implied that the arrest was intended to boost the “law and order” message of President Donald Trump in a crucial swing state just before Election Day. Trump nominated McSwain to become the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 2017.

“We are very suspicious of the timing of these charges,” Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center and one of the lawyers representing Smith in his civil suit. “These charges, we believe, are political posturing related to a contested election coming up next week. We expect these charges to be dismissed.”

The largely subdued rally ended with participants raising their fists solemnly in support of Smith.

“They really messed with the wrong one,” said fellow activist Deandra Jefferson. “I don’t think they realized who they were messing with.”

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