Why didn’t Philly police respond to white men with bats? Fishtown neighbors wait for answers

Matthew Williams said one of the men in the group knocked him off his bike as he rode home. (Photo by Chad Butler)

Matthew Williams said one of the men in the group knocked him off his bike as he rode home. (Photo by Chad Butler)

Updated 9:30 p.m.

Neighbors in Fishtown are on edge after Philadelphia police officers appeared to allow a large and vocal group of roughly 70, mostly white men, several of whom were carrying bats, to gather outside a police district long after the city’s mandatory curfew took effect at 6 p.m. on Monday.

Members of the group, who said they were there to protect police, heckled and threatened a small group of roughly a dozen people protesting the killing of George Floyd clustered across from them on Girard Avenue. They also assaulted at least three people before dispersing for the night, including a WHYY employee who was not on assignment for the station at the time, but was using his smartphone to capture the unfolding scene on social media.

“Anyone who wants to throw s—t at a cop or pick on a cop, pick one of us the f—k out and we’ll go around the corner and fight you,” one of the men can be heard telling protesters in a video posted to Twitter.

Five nearby residents told WHYY News they called 911 to report the group or raised concerns with cops stationed at the 26th Police District about having a large group, carrying items that could be used as weapons, out past curfew. In addition to bats, some of the men were seen in photos and videos posted to social media carrying golf clubs and, in one case, a hatchet.

However, the neighbors said the officers and dispatchers brushed them off, leaving them with the impression that law enforcement condoned, and perhaps even encouraged the group’s presence along Girard, an assertion Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner says is untrue. The department’s Internal Affairs Unit is investigating the incident, a spokesperson said Tuesday evening.

“They were unfazed by the entire situation,” said Scott Hearn of the cops on Girard Avenue, who stood between the group of mostly white men and the group of protesters on the other side of the street.

“The police just kept saying, ‘They’re not going to hurt you,’” said Katherine Scholle.

Kara Khan and her boyfriend, Matthew Willams, slept at a friend’s house in another neighborhood Monday night because they were so shaken by the group’s actions.

Williams said one of the men threw him off his bike, then kicked and punched him in the face before threatening him with a bat as he and others loomed over him as he lay on the ground, bleeding.

Williams said he was attacked after being separated from Khan, who stopped her bike after one of the men tried to hit the couple with full water bottles. This, after they mistakenly thought the group was part of the Justice for George Floyd protests, and raised their fists in solidarity, said Khan.

Khan said some of the men also threatened her with baseball bats and hurled insults at her as she moved past them and away from Girard Avenue. She said one man called her a “porno b–ch.”

“It sucks not to feel safe in your neighborhood,” said Khan, who has lived in Fishtown for six years.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said her department was in no way supportive of the group that gathered outside the 26th Police District the night before.

“I didn’t ask them to do that, I don’t welcome that, I don’t invite them to come back, and we don’t need them,” said Outlaw.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who made a career defending protesters before he became the city’s top prosecutor, issued a statement on the incident Tuesday night.

“I want to be clear: violence and threats and disorderly acts of hatred will not be tolerated by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “People who do it will be prosecuted, as will anyone who helps them cause harm. They are the problem, not the solution; they are the danger, not the peaceful protesters.”

The police department is still investigating the gathering, including what happened to WHYY producer Jon Ehrens, who said three or four of the men attacked him on Thompson Street after several police squad cars and a tank arrived at the scene to prod everyone to go home.

The men, who also shoved Ehrens’ girlfriend, chased after him when they noticed him recording them with his smartphone, said Ehrens, who was not reporting for the public radio station at the time.

An ambulance took Ehrens to the hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose. His left eye is swollen shut.

“I didn’t see the police inciting violence, but perhaps they could have done a better job at dispersing the crowd quicker,” said Ehrens.

It’s unclear whether members of the group were Fishtown residents or if any of them are affiliated with any particular group.

Police can be seen in a video Ehrens posted to Twitter arresting a Black man at one point during the night, but neighbors say officers did not detain any of the white men part of the gathering outside the police district, which they said sends a clear signal about what behavior the department is — and isn’t — willing to tolerate.

Asked Tuesday why police didn’t arrest anyone from the group for violating the citywide curfew or for allegedly assaulting Williams, Ehrens and his girlfriend, Outlaw didn’t immediately have an answer.

“That’s a very good question, and I’ll have an answer to that, not at this moment, at some point later today as we look more into how that unfolded,” she said.

As of Tuesday night, the department still had not recorded any arrests of the men involved, according to Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesperson.

However, earlier in the day, police arrested dozens of protestors who broke off from a massive demonstration to shut down traffic on I-676.

The police department, which claimed they used the tear gas after some of the protesters threw rocks at officers and rocked a police vehicle back and forth with a trooper inside, made the arrests after firing tear tear gas at the protesters blocking the highway. Police continued to use tear gas as some of them struggled to climb a steep, fenced enbankment on the side of the expressway. (The department has since revised its use-of-force guidelines. Officers are now required to report all use of force live on their radios, rather than as procedural paperwork after the fact, according to a memo obtained by WHYY and Billy Penn.)

“That was the most upsetting thing,” said Khan, who photographed the protest in Center City. “To watch cops stand up and protect people who are being actually violent towards us for no reason was just like, ‘What world do we live in?’”

Kinebrew said the department knows Khan is not the only person who feels the police treated the men in Fishtown differently.

“We are aware of that perception, take it seriously and are investigating this matter. [Internal Affairs] has initiated an investigation of the events near the 26th Street District, so it’s too early to provide further comment,” said Kinebrew.

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