June 3 — 8:00 pm, 2020

Tear gas on I-676: A Notebook reporter’s account

My take: Police cleared the roadway at the First Amendment's expense.

Protestors scramble as police clear the roadway following the initial salvo of tear gas. Photo is taken looking north from Winter Street with eastbound lanes of 676 in the foreground and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the background. Photo by Bill Hangley.

With the facts in some dispute regarding Monday’s confrontation between police and protesters on the Vine Street Expressway, I want to share my account of what I observed on that day.

But because this is a commentary and not a news report, before I tell you what I saw, first I’m going to tell you what I think.

Based on what I saw Monday, I think that the police response to protesters entering the highway that day was dangerous and unnecessary, threatening public safety and squashing vital First Amendment expression in order to control a strip of asphalt.

I’ve heard the official argument that a police officer felt endangered. But the next piece of evidence I see to confirm that will be the first.

Instead, what it looked like to me is simply this: Once police found themselves unable to keep protesters off Interstate 676, they resorted to violence to get the job done.

I didn’t see everything that happened from my two vantage points, and I don’t have much new to add to previous accounts.  

But it’s important to me that I share this: As the situation on 676 developed, I didn’t see anything to suggest that a forceful police response was necessary. In the moments before the police fired tear gas, the protesters appeared to me to be doing what they’d done all day – marching along steadily, insistently, and peacefully. It’s true that blocking an interstate is, by definition, a criminal act. But here in the real world, once the protesters had successfully swarmed I-676 and stopped its traffic, I saw no apparent threat to anyone’s safety.

For the officers’ part, once the gas was fired, I saw no obviously unlawful police behavior, no billy clubs cracking skulls or clearly excessive use of force.

But I did see and hear officers continue to fire canisters of some sort into the crowd well after the initial salvo of tear gas had triggered panic. The shots made a distinctive thwok that sounded more like the pop of a flare gun than the crack of a rifle. That was the soundtrack for the final long minutes of the confrontation: screams, curses, thwoks, and the roar of a police helicopter circling low overhead, its siren blaring.

I didn’t see the moment when an officer pepper-sprayed a seated protester in the face – an incident that so far appears to be the day’s most obvious act of police misconduct.

But for me, the enduring image of the day remains that of a black-clad officer casually firing canisters from the 676 trench up into the air, to land among the already-panicked, fleeing marchers on the Parkway above, then turning to watch his colleagues wrestle the last of the highway protesters to the asphalt nearby.

My day: A peaceful march turns dangerous

I wasn’t on assignment for the Notebook or anyone else on Monday. I went to Center City that afternoon to see for myself what my neighbors would have to say, how they would say it, and how the police would respond. 

I rode my bike into town from West Philadelphia in the early afternoon, past the boarded-up shops around Rittenhouse Square, and found the protesters gathering at the foot of North Broad Street at City Hall. I followed the group as it made its way along Race Street to Independence Mall, back on Market toward City Hall, and from there to Vine Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway.

As others have reported, it appeared to be an entirely peaceful march, the mood cheerful but serious. The marchers were diverse and mostly young, a group large enough to stretch for blocks.

As they marched, police set up barriers and fences to keep them contained on the route and trailed the marchers with squad cars and bikes and a big black military-looking vehicle carrying officers in riot gear. But the police didn’t otherwise interfere. They let the marchers speak.

The marchers, for their part, were peaceful. I didn’t see everything or accompany the march every step of its way, but I saw no indication of violence from marchers toward police or property.

I expected the marchers to try to get on the highway at some point; it’s a time-honored tradition among Philadelphia protesters, who correctly assess that blocking the biggest road in town makes the biggest statement. I also expected the police to try to stop them, which they usually do.

But this time they didn’t. It was late afternoon when the march reached the Ben Franklin Parkway, appearing destined to end at the Art Museum. But then the marchers briefly paused. Just before 5 p.m., they started up again, and some bore left to enter 676 using the 22nd Street access ramps.

I rode into the Park Towne condominium complex, whose rear parking lot abuts 676, to see what would happen. Highway traffic had stopped by the time I found a gap in the fence that allowed me to walk onto 676’s westbound lanes. The spot gave me a clear view east, where I saw the marchers streaming onto the highway from the 22nd Street ramp.

Nothing blocked their path. For a good five minutes, the crowd moved steadily and without apparent disruption onto 676. A small group of helmeted, blue-shirted police officers stood ignored at the base of the 22nd Street on-ramp as the marchers flowed past.

While some marchers stayed on the westbound side, where they reportedly had a brief but nonviolent standoff with an officer, most crossed the highway to the eastbound lanes and began marching steadily toward Broad Street.

In seconds, peace turns to chaos

It wasn’t long before the eastbound side was filled with people, walking shoulder to shoulder. A few cheers echoed from under the 22nd Street overpass as the marchers flowed beneath it. As I watched from behind Park Towne Place, I wondered: Are the police really just going to let these folks keep marching?

I guessed they wouldn’t, and I guessed right. Without any warning that I could hear, a loud boom sounded from the Parkway. “Here it comes,” said someone next to me. Suddenly clouds of white smoke began billowing from 22nd Street down onto the highway, and marchers began running back toward the on-ramps. Shouts and more booms filled the air. The confrontation had begun.

I scrambled off the highway with the other observers and rushed to the south side of 676. From a spot on Winter Street between 20th and 21st, I was able to look through a fence and down into the trench of 676. The now-infamous grassy embankment was directly across from me.

By that point, the scene was a melee. A police helicopter roared overhead as sirens filled the air. Police and protesters alike were scrambling up and tumbling down the steep slope, with some marchers trying to escape over the fence at the top, and others running and rolling down to the roadway below. Clouds of tear gas billowed as police wrangled with protesters, letting many get away, but restraining others and depositing them on the highway’s concrete barriers to await processing. At one point, a dozen or more protesters were laid over the barrier, rears in the air, as if to be spanked.

Soon the officers had cleared most marchers from the roadway, but tear gas was still flying, and most of the remaining crowd on the Parkway was running away. I heard screams and curses, and I saw a few marchers throw water bottles and traffic barrels down onto the highway. At one point a bottle rocket of some sort exploded near the roadway, sending a brief shower of colored sparks. But most of the crowd on street level looked to be running back down the Parkway toward City Hall.

Meanwhile, officers continued firing some sort of gas canisters. One caught my eye as he stood alone on 676, near the 20th Street overpass, safely separated from any action. He stood casually, his rifle aimed up at a 45-degree angle, and as I watched he calmly and methodically fired several rounds. Each shot made the loud thwop, sending a canister up in a lazy arc to fall among the panicking, rushing crowd above. As he paused between shots, I heard other thwops from other, unseen rifles.

Then the officer I was watching lowered his rifle. He turned his gaze to his colleagues as they grappled with the last of the marchers on 676. It was about 5:15 p.m., and the confrontation was over. The aftermath had begun.

One man’s opinion: Confronting racism trumps protecting highways

Monday’s episode has rightly brought intense scrutiny. Marchers have challenged Mayor Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to defend law enforcement’s actions, and Outlaw has promised to put a tighter rein on the use of force by requiring field commanders to “report” plans to use tear gas before pulling the trigger.

“Effective immediately, and until notified otherwise, all uses of force must be reported via Police Radio, to ensure we can properly defend our actions when we are ultimately challenged,” Outlaw said in a memo.

That’s a welcome response, as are the calls from former President Barack Obama for mayors and police chiefs to review their use-of-force policies and the calls of so many others for police reform. I can’t ask my public servants to be perfect, but I expect them to confront mistakes honestly and take steps to correct them.

But Monday’s incident left me shaken and troubled. Among other things, it has me reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned about trauma during my time reporting for the Notebook.

I watched from a relatively safe distance – the worst I got was a face full of tear gas, which I can confirm makes you cry – and the violence I witnessed was modest on the overall scale of what police (or anyone else) can do.

But it was unquestionably police violence, and two days later its echoes are still bouncing around my brain, embodied in the seared image of an officer casually launching panic-inducing gas canisters into a terrified crowd he couldn’t even really see.

I wasn’t surprised that police wouldn’t let the marchers stay on 676. I was more surprised by the fact that they got on in the first place. Anyone who has been around Philadelphia protests knows that marchers will try to get on the highway, and in this case, they were able to do so with relative ease.

Whether that represents a tactical mistake by the Philadelphia Police Department is a question for Outlaw and her team.

But what’s clear to me is, once the marchers had occupied the roadway, police faced a decision: what’s more important, to protect the highway or the First Amendment? Is our primary mission to let these people continue to speak safely and freely, or is it to get them off this particular patch of asphalt?

We know what the answer was on Monday. The police response to the marchers’ arrival on 676 looked, felt, and sounded like a military operation. It didn’t look like the goal was to keep the marchers safe as they exercised their First Amendment rights. It looked like the goal was to drive them off the highway. 

To some of the officers, what resulted was success. In a memorable image, photographer Roger Barone captured two officers fist-bumping as the traffic started rolling.

The grassy embankment between 20th and 21st Streets, seen about an hour after the tear gas incident. Backpacks, bicycles, and other trash left behind by panicked protesters still litter the grass. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)

To me, it looked like unnecessary escalation – more force than the situation warranted, to no one’s benefit. The surprise tear gas blasts triggered a panic that could have been deadly. Once the marchers got on the highway, the safest and most respectful thing to do may well have been to let them keep going and steer them off at a nearby exit. If any marchers wanted to sit down and get arrested, in the tradition of civil disobedience, that would have been the time for arrests.

But to treat the marchers as criminals who had surrendered their right to speak and assemble, simply because they had moved their speech from a big road to a bigger road, strikes me as a victory for rules over rights. And it’s rights that will save this country, not rules.

For the record: It’s not my opinion that anybody should be able to block an interstate highway any time they want for any reason.

But some things are bigger than highways, and confronting American racial injustice is one of them. The Vine Street Expressway is not a “battle space,” and the marchers are not the enemy. The Vine Street Expressway is Philadelphia, the marchers are us, and the change they are marching for is change that must happen. If America doesn’t confront and eliminate racial injustice, all the highways in the nation won’t do us any good.

 

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