WHYY reporter arrested while covering Philadelphia protest

WHYY education reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent said he identified himself to police as a journalist, but was arrested anyway and cited for failure to disperse.

Police arrest a protester next to Independence Mall on Sunday afternoon. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Police arrest a protester next to Independence Mall on Sunday afternoon. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated: 10:20 a.m. Monday


A WHYY reporter was one of at least a dozen people arrested during a relatively small protest that started in front of the Philadelphia Police Headquarters in Old City on Sunday afternoon.

Avi Wolfman-Arent said he identified himself to police as a journalist covering the demonstration, but was detained anyway and issued a code violation notice for failure to disperse.

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Wolfman-Arent said he was not hurt and none of the estimated 50 to 75 protesters he was near appeared to suffer serious injuries, despite some skirmishes with police during a roughly half-mile walk from the police headquarters down 6th Street.

“There was verbal abuse going both ways, for sure,” and at one point early in the protest some people hurled water bottles at the police, Wolfman-Arent said. “There was a lot of anger. Just a lot, a lot of anger.”

Sandra Clark, WHYY’s vice president of news and civic dialogue, said Wolfman-Arent’s arrest after he clearly identified himself as a journalist was “completely unacceptable.”

“We have a duty to serve the public and that means seeking truth and accountability, and representing diverse perspectives and experiences,” she said. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

“We are aware of the allegation, and have already initiated an Internal Affairs investigation,” Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesman, said in an email on Monday morning. “Because the investigation is active, and also because we are in the early stages of information gathering, we are unable to comment further at this point.”

Videos from the scene show at least two protesters were sprayed with a chemical substance as a phalanx of officers trailed the protesters south past the Liberty Bell.

Wolfman-Arent, who typically covers education for WHYY, said some police wielded batons, but did not appear to use them. Many also had police bicycles, which they sometimes thrusted at protesters who weren’t moving or confronted the officers verbally.

“One guy I remember distinctly was yelling ‘Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!’ at the police,” he said.

The protest was organized by local activist Asa Khalif, who started the event shortly after 4 p.m. by using a megaphone to speak to the few dozen officers standing outside police headquarters.

“We’re gonna take any motherf–kin’ street we want tonight,” Khalif said during a speech mentioning the city’s Frank Rizzo statue, the 1985 MOVE bombing and the team of attorneys promising to represent arrested protesters for free.

Protests, looting and vandalism elsewhere in the city had by that time led city officials to declare a 6 p.m. curfew and prepare for the arrival of Pennsylvania National Guard troops on Sunday evening.

The group of largely young, white protesters began marching around 4:30 p.m., first heading east on Race Street and then south on 6th Street.

“The general flow of the protesters was away from the police,” Wolfman-Arent said. “I didn’t see anyone charging the police.”

The first clash, however, came around Arch Street, when a protester was tackled and sprayed with what Wolfman-Arent described as a “ruddy, orange-red substance.”

Tensions flared again around Market Street, and then again alongside Independence Square, even as the protest started to splinter. That’s where Wolfman-Arent was arrested and handcuffed while face down on the ground in front of The Curtis Publishing Company building.

“They claim at some point a dispersal warning was given,” he said of police. “I did not hear a dispersal warning. … In fairness, I was wearing my headphones, so it’s possible that that noise was muffled for me.”

Kimberly Paynter, a WHYY photojournalist also on the scene, but who was not arrested, said she did not hear a dispersal warning either. She said she did not see Wolfman-Arent get arrested.

Wolfman-Arent was transported to a police station at 17th Street and Montgomery Ave., near Temple University, with seven other protesters. He said the face-covering he was wearing was removed by police ahead of the ride.

For all but one of those seven, it was their first time being arrested at a protest, Wolfman-Arent learned.

“I thought, you know, maybe the people who go to these smaller protests, maybe they’re the people who are the hard-core ones,” he said. “But by their telling, they weren’t.”

Wolfman-Arent said the recorder and boom microphone he was carrying during the protest were confiscated by police, but returned following his release.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from a police spokesperson.

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