Judge: Activist Anthony Smith to be freed pending trial

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

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

A federal judge has ordered the pretrial release of Anthony Smith, a Philadelphia social studies teacher and organizer with Philly for REAL Justice, who was charged with helping to burn a police cruiser during civil unrest in May. He is expected to leave custody in the Lehigh Valley on Monday afternoon.

Smith still faces federal arson charges that carry a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence, for allegedly adding combustible materials to a car that was already on fire during a protest near City Hall.

Defense Attorney Paul Hetznecker said the prosecution is likely to be slowed by the coronavirus backlog in the courts.

“At least Anthony Smith will be free, and at home, and will be able to continue to teach and provide the support he has to his students and fellow faculty members at YouthBuild,” he said. In court documents, Smith’s bosses at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School affirmed that he would be able to continue teaching remotely pending trial.

Three other people face similar charges connected to marches protesting police brutality after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis earlier this year.

“Violence is not speech. There is no right to riot, rob, commit arson or destroy,” said U.S. Attorney Wiliam McSwain at a press conference announcing the prosecutions.

First Amendment advocates and other activists have criticized the move as an attempt to punish Smith and others for their visibility in calling for police form. Friends and family members marched in solidarity with Smith after his arrest in late October, several months after the alleged criminal activity took place.

Smith is also a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Philadelphia police department over its use of tear gas and rubber bullets to subdue marchers in a residential area of West Philly, which they say endangered the neighborhood.

“Our argument has been the same throughout,” said Hetznecker, who has repeatedly called the prosecution “a political decision.”

“We feel very excited about that and feel confident that he will be vindicated,” he said.

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