Philadelphia officials are struggling to produce evidence to back up their claims that protests Monday on Interstate 676 had turned hostile before officers unleashed tear gas on demonstrators cornered on the highway.
A peaceful protest over the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement began around 3 p.m. at city police headquarters. Organized by the Philadelphia chapter of the political group “Party for Socialism and Liberation,” it moved through Chinatown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Around 5 p.m., some of the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 protesters poured down embankment onto I-676, halting traffic in both directions.
The demonstration ended a few minutes later with Philadelphia police using tear gas canisters and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, according to videos that spread quickly online.
Viewers around the world expressed shock and outrage at the sight of demonstrators struggling to escape a fenced portion of the highway trench as officers continued to gas the area.
They just got us all pretty good. The parkway is a mess right now. pic.twitter.com/RAO049eM82
— Jeff Neiburg (@Jeff_Neiburg) June 1, 2020
In a joint statement issued by Mayor Jim Kenney’s office shortly before midnight Monday, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said law enforcement on site had no choice.
Outlaw said an unnamed incident commander on the ground ordered tear gas delivered because a Pennsylvania state trooper was trapped in his patrol vehicle on the highway and surrounded by protesters, some of whom allegedly pelted law enforcement with rocks from an overpass.
“While on the roadway, the crowd surrounded a state trooper, who was alone and seated in his vehicle, and began rocking the vehicle, with the trooper having no safe means of egress,” she said in a prepared statement. “The SWAT officers gave numerous orders for the crowd to disperse, to which the crowd did not comply.”
Mayor Kenney and Outlaw cosigned the use of tear gas while raising questions about a separate incident in which a SWAT trooper was seen pepper-spraying kneeling protesters in the face. Both said the entire encounter would be fully investigated.
But neither Kenney’s office nor Outlaw could immediately produce evidence showing any hostile actions had actually occurred.
“We’re still gathering information,” Outlaw said at a Tuesday press conference.
Many protesters who were there, like 31-year-old Fishtown resident Kara Khan, disputed the city’s version of events.
“It’s appalling,” Khan said of the mayor’s office statement. “I have not seen any evidence that is true. It’s really shocking and hurtful watching the mayor lie.”
Aerial footage does show some protesters moving past a lone Pennsylvania State Police vehicle in a gridlocked eastbound traffic lane –– but does not show individuals tampering with the vehicle.
Later, a state trooper is visible outside the vehicle armed with a long gun, with Philly SWAT officers already approaching the protesters, some of whom had already begun to scatter. In one video, individuals are visible kneeling before an unidentified trooper.
“No one seemed distressed. They just seemed like tough guys,” Khan said of the law enforcement present. “I didn’t see anyone throwing rocks at anybody.”
Not long afterward, the crowd surged again, and SWAT teams began firing pepper pellets, with tear gas canisters following.
Panicked protesters struggled to climb up the embankments, abandoning bicycles and backpacks to escape the gas. Some were trapped in the highway trench, unable to get over the fence before the gas hit them. Others in the back who couldn’t see police shooting tear gas said they thought protesters were running to escape oncoming cars—a similar event occurred on a Minneapolis highway taken over by protesters a few days ago.
At the Tuesday press conference, Kenney said his office stood by their initial description of what transpired.
“We stand by that statement about a state trooper being surrounded in his vehicles,” he said.
In his initial statement supporting the use of teargas, Kenney indicated he had been “disturbed” by the footage he had seen of the protest. But Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the mayor, later clarified the mayor had not actually seen footage of protesters rocking the vehicle or throwing projectiles.
“The Mayor, in using the term ‘footage,’ was referring to video publicly broadcast by news organizations and on social media,” Dunn said. “The Mayor never said he saw the vehicle being rocked back and forth; that specific moment was referenced by the Commissioner. He said he saw footage of the incident that was disturbing.”
Dunn could not confirm that the state police vehicle visible in aerial videos was the one in question –– or even where the vehicle in question was located. A state trooper spokesperson said the agency could also not immediately verify the specific details from Outlaw’s statement.
A statement from the state police about the incident does not reference protesters throwing rocks or tampering with a trooper’s vehicle.
“Law enforcement encountered a very difficult situation in a roadway that could have resulted in harm to protesters or motorists, and we, collectively, took steps to mitigate the risk to everyone on the road,” said spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski.
‘They wouldn’t stop firing tear gas. People thought they were dying.’
Another video, in which an officer was seen macing seated protesters in the face, has also garnered calls for action.
Christina Sorenson, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, marched onto the Vine Street Expressway with her husband, Maxwell Hibbard, a public school teacher. The two were handing out ACLU pamphlets to youth about their civil rights.
Neither heard police issue dispersal orders as the march took the highway, nor did they see the state troopers under siege before tear gas began flying.
“The peace was palatable,” said Sorenson, 36. “People were getting out of their cars and cheering us on.”
When the gas came, Sorenson saw what she described as a young man of color taking a seat on the highway as protesters scrambled to escape the fumes. She and another identified white woman sat down with him for support, she said.
In another view that surfaced on social media, an officer can be approaching the seated group with a pepper spray canister. He pulls down Sorenson’s facemask and maces her in the eyes at close range, before moving onto the others. The officer then grabs and throws the unidentified young man on the ground as he continues to spray him.
Outlaw said the department’s internal affairs unit would be investigating the incident as part of a larger investigation into the interstate conflagration.
Numerous protesters at the scene described the incident as needless escalation by the police.
“They wouldn’t stop firing tear gas,” Khan said. “People thought they were dying.”
Reporter Miles Bryan contributed to this article.