By Amina Levites-Cohen '21
When George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, millions of Americans took to the streets of their cities to protest police brutality. Philadelphia was no different. For a few weeks, each day yielded a new wave of protests and curfews.
The protests began on May 30, just days after the death of George Floyd. Philadelphians congregated outside of City Hall near the statue of Frank Rizzo- Philadelphia’s infamously racist former Police Commissioner and Mayor. The protesters spray-painted the statue and unsuccessfully attempted to topple it. The night of the first protests, many businesses were ransacked by looters, and a curfew was imposed. It is unclear what group these people belonged to, but leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have condemned them. On the second day of protests, the city called in the National Guard to aid the police department, while communities focused on cleaning up the damage that the looters had caused the previous night. A few days later, the city removed the statue, and Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement conveying that the statue “represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long.”
As the movement and protests prevailed, so did the tensions between protesters and police. On June 1, a group entered 676 Interstate Highway. Footage from the dashcam of a State Trooper revealed the trooper emphasizing that the protest was “peaceful.” The group marched through a tunnel but was pushed out by SWAT teams using pepper spray. “There wasn’t any verbal warning,” one protester later said in an interview with The New York Times, “there wasn’t any pushing with shields, there wasn’t any pushing with bikes, there was no megaphone.” Eventually, another SWAT team approached the protesters with an armored vehicle. Footage shows the protesters scrambling towards a nearby hill as a means of escape while the SWAT teams used tear gas and pepper spray. “There was no warning; there was nothing. Weapons were the first warning,” the protester told The New York Times. After The New York Times published a piece on the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of tear gas, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney apologized for the incident and issued a suspension on the use of tear gas.
Ethan Auritt, a student at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy ՚22, recalled his experiences protesting. He attended numerous protests, including the one on I-676, and remembers that people brought food and water “to make sure everyone had a safe and smooth demonstration.” Auritt, who left minutes before the protest escalated, says his friends called the experience “traumatic” because they had no way of escaping the tear gas. Overall, Auritt said he “found these protests to be super meaningful, and they definitely sent clear messages to our local officials.” While Philadelphia’s police department has a history of perpetuating racial inequality, Auritt represents the citizens who are pushing for an improved connection between the police and the city’s communities.