The Battle of Philadelphia occurred on Thursday, April 30, 2015. It was the fourth day after the Baltimore riot that Monday, and protests had already spread across the country. Only the day before the “Philly is Baltimore” rally, nearly 30 cities erupted into protest, with over a hundred persons arrested in New York City during the “NYC Rise Up & Shut It Down With Baltimore,” and 11 others were charged in Denver. During the Philly rally on Thursday, another rally took place in Cincinnati, although it received less publicity. The country was once again exploding just as it did following Ferguson a few months earlier.
The protests following Baltimore, at least in Philadelphia, were twice the size than those for Ferguson. In August 2014, I joined 800 demonstrators at a rally in Love Park, the same number of demonstrators as the year before for Trayvon Martin. Roughly another 800 demonstrated at some of the biggest Philadelphia rallies in December for Mike Brown and Eric Garner. The overall power was shown on MLK Day, January 19, 2015, when several thousand demonstrated. But on April 30, 2015, nearly 2,000 demonstrators gathered at City Hall for Baltimore, with only a 2-day notice. The event was organized by one of the leading activist groups in the city, the “Philly Coalition for REAL Justice.” Every major activist was aware of this rally. Occupy activists from 2011 came out of retirement just for this protest. Just like in Baltimore, Blood and Crips came out in support to “keep the peace” and promised “no violence.” (philly.com, April 30) Also present were hundreds of cops, undercover agents, four different helicopters, and from a distance one could see the horse-mounted battalion of Philadelphia officers. Philly officials were terrified about the city exploding from this demonstration. After more than 2,000 people confirmed they were going to the rally on Facebook in only two days, police and city officials reacted by closing down certain businesses, schools and government buildings, with warnings to drivers to avoid downtown that evening.
I waited around City Hall from 4:30-6:00, running into every Philly activist I knew, while Vanessa Maria chatted with her Occupy friends. It was very exciting and peaceful at City Hall. While hundreds tried to listen to various speakers, I joined a smaller circle of a hundred people watching street dancers, with some as young as 5 years old. Drum circles and peaceful chanting gathered the attention of most people, especially since this group uplifted the spirits of people throughout the march. Philly marijuana activists N.A. Poe, Vanessa Maria, Chris Goldstein, Mike Whiter and I openly smoked on the sidewalk, which gathered the attention of newspapers, but didn’t cause police to react. Poe gained significant publicity after comically putting a joint inside the mouth of the police officer puppet he brought, which made it onto the news.
Around 6:00 the massive wave of demonstrators moved down Broad Street. While the Front lines turned down 18th and Locust, the Back lines had still yet to turn off of Broad Street. The long line of demonstrators marched around idle cars in the street, and even chanted at bystanders eating at Devon’s restaurant. The first police confrontation took place on Walnut Street, when demonstrators encircled a police car in the street and led chants for over half-an-hour. The woman on the microphone read the long list of black victims from police brutality, with each name followed by demonstrators yelling “Black Lives Matter.” The officer of the car stood next to the speaker, carefully looking around at the thousands of demonstrators surrounding him, while dozens of officers tried to push their way toward the police car. Nothing more than chanting came out of the situation, but demonstrators began to feel radicalized after successfully overtaking the police car. Shortly after this, one of the march leaders wanted to send action groups around the city to block off every major intersection. This idea was turned down, but soon after this we started heading toward the highway.
We proceeded to march down Kennedy Blvd. toward the highway, but we had to keep stopping to bring together all the marchers, down to only a thousand by now. It was clear we were heading toward the highway and police were well-prepared for us, blocking off every conceivable exit. Police barriers held back demonstrators on Wood Street, and some even tried to climb over a fence, but to no avail. After ten minutes of demonstrators and police standing face-to-face, the demonstrators were allowed to walk past, but with police cars and helicopters already rushing toward the next exit spot. By this point it was obvious that demonstrators would not reach the highway, but the atmosphere demanded some grand conclusion.
This grand conclusion came at Broad & Vine around 8:00. We were now under a thousand persons, and the exit to the Expressway was completely blocked by officers mounted on horses. We were standing with nowhere to go when local activist and Green Party candidate, Glenn Davis, summoned everyone in the street to perform a sit-down, which several hundred of us did. I thought this move was genius because it kept us nonviolent in front of cameras, which was important because newspapers were trying to label all demonstrators as violent. Moreover it was necessary to keep people active at a time when there was little else to do but begin pushing the cops back. The nonviolent sit-down only lasted five minutes, and was ignored later on because of the confrontational methods that followed. Vanessa Maria was on the front line when cops and demonstrators began pushing one another, with cops holding up bicycles and using pepper-spray on demonstrators. At this time I was in the middle of the crowd of some 600 persons, feeling like a Battle was taking place. Demonstrators retreated each time pepper spray was used, but we kept regrouping and moved closer to police. Those on the front line kept retreating every few minutes, and I saw one black man with his shirt ripped and blood pouring down his face. As I looked around it was obvious that we were surrounded on all four sides around the intersection, making us more determined to get through the barrier of police. Since demonstrators couldn’t reach the highway, we became satisfied with different forms of mini-victories. These included taking the caps off of the heads of police officers and throwing them back into the crowd, or hitting officers with full bottles of water. Eventually cops let us by them, but only to let us continue marching around other parts of the city, not to let us on the highway.
At this point the crowd died down to its last few hundred. Three people had been arrested and the crowd moved toward the police station. I left the march along with Vanessa, Poe, Goldstein and others to head back to a hotel, which we arrived at around 9:30. We were all tired and hungry after marching for nearly 3 straight hours. On the news that night we watched the main story of the Philadelphia rally. Around the nation people read that Philly demonstrators “clashed” with police, adding more momentum to the national protests over Freddie Gray. The news made it seem like the entire country was about to explode. Who is to say that the “Philly is Baltimore” rally didn’t help push the government to place the six police officers on trial in Baltimore the next day? The last thing any official wanted was to have multiple Baltimore’s’. After watching the news coverage of the rally, we watched the countdown of the curfew in Baltimore. It really felt like we were in a unique time in history, like those who lived through the “long hot summers” in the 1960s. But if another ghetto explodes in the future, then massive confrontations can be expected nationwide, at least in Philadelphia.
(Philly.com, April 29)
(Philly.com, April 30)
(NBC 10, April 30)
(6 ABC News, April 30)
(6 ABC News, May 1)