Home News World ‘I Humbly Apologize’: Philadelphia Officials Announce Changes After Protest Response

‘I Humbly Apologize’: Philadelphia Officials Announce Changes After Protest Response

[screaming and shouting] Trapped on the side of a highway in downtown Philadelphia, surrounded by tear gas. This was how a protest against racism and police violence that began peacefully was ended by the police just minutes later. “There’s pandemonium. There’s yelling, there’s screaming. I realize, like, I have to get off of this hill. I can’t breathe at all.” [coughing and screaming] Protests have spread across the U.S. after George Floyd was killed while in police custody. And in some cases, rather than de-escalating, officers responded with force, in violation of their own guidelines on crowd control and the use of less-than-lethal weapons. That was the case at the protest in Philadelphia, which was documented from all angles by protesters, journalists and even helicopters overhead. [sirens] This wealth of evidence presents a detailed picture of how crowd-control tactics — in this case, with pepper spray and tear gas — can be misused or even abused, causing injuries and inflaming tensions even more. [screaming] “Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” It’s Monday, June 1, the third day of demonstrations in Philadelphia. More than a thousand protesters begin marching. Shortly before 5 p.m., some of them enter the I-676 highway. They’re disrupting traffic on a major road, and some are vandalizing the area, giving the police cause to intervene. But we don’t see any signs of violence. “The people in front kind of signaled to all the cars to stop, slow down. The cars were, like, honking in support of us.” [cars honking] The protesters move towards this tunnel, and soon, two SWAT teams arrive at the front and rear of the march. Their aim is to clear the road and to assist a state trooper who’s also at the scene. Philadelphia police initially claim the trooper was trapped in his car and threatened by protesters. But we can clearly see his empty vehicle, and the car’s dash-cam footage, released several weeks later, shows that police radio traffic refers to the protesters as “peaceful.” The trooper had actually been able to leave freely and join the SWAT team, contradicting accounts by the city police. All we see is a marcher spray-painting the empty car. [shouting and screaming] The first SWAT team comes in from the east side through the tunnel. People panic, and the situation escalates, as seen from the ground and overhead. Part of the SWAT team pushes the marchers out of the tunnel using pepper spray. “There was, like, two or three SWAT cops, and they were just [spraying sounds] to anyone who was in front. There wasn’t any verbal warning. There wasn’t any, like, ‘Yo, you guys need to evacuate.’ ” Officers target people walking away from them or filming the scene. Then, the second SWAT team moves in from the other side with an armored vehicle. “She goes right underneath the [inaudible], bro.” Protesters are now wedged in between two police teams. Most try to comply with the officers and look for ways to leave the scene. Some escape. Others get trapped. “Honestly, people were just trying to get away. There wasn’t any kind of verbal warning. There wasn’t any pushing with shields. There wasn’t any pushing with bikes. There was no megaphone. There was nothing! It was weapons. Weapons were the first warning. That’s it.” We spoke with this man, who was pepper-sprayed in the face by the second SWAT team, after sitting in the middle of the highway. [screaming] “When I sat down, immediately, two women ran and sat down in front of me. And I’m assuming they did this because they were protecting me.” When a tear gas canister landed near him, he thought of the women sitting nearby. “I couldn’t let them get hurt for something I chose to do. Alright, this was my decision. So, I picked up the tear gas. I threw it back, not directly at the cop, but just — just away. And then I immediately, immediately, sat back down, crossed my legs. He walks up to the girl in front, sprays her, pulls her mask down. The girl next to her: sprays her. I hear a spray. He pushes me, sprays me, sprays me continuously. I could not see. I could barely breathe.” Police guidelines state that pepper spray should not be used on disorderly crowds or peaceful protesters, only on specific people acting violently. [sirens] Next, as one group of marchers leaves the highway and climbs this small hill, we see an egregious misuse of tear gas. At this point, you can see the highway is clear and traffic is flowing. This is crucial. Protesters had clearly complied with police and were trying to leave the freeway, a finding that directly contradicts how the police would characterize what happened. “The option of deploying tear gas was selected when it became evident at that time other options were not effective.” But the protesters get stuck at a dead end. “When the cops came from both sides, underneath the bridges, if you hadn’t already left, like, as soon as cops showed up, there was really nowhere to go.” The only escape route: climbing a large fence and wall at the end of a hill. Behind them is the highway. And that’s where pepper-spraying police officers and the state trooper are, pinning them in. A local videographer named Sunny Singh, who runs a website called hate5six, films the scene. [screaming and shouting] The intent of tear gas is dispersal, but if the gas is used in a space with no easy exit, people can’t move away. At that exact moment, other footage shows that an officer actually directs people up the hill, into the crowds trapped in tear gas. [coughing] The police later said they had also fired white smoke to reduce the impact of the tear gas, but the effects are still strong. According to a health and human rights expert who reviewed the videos, the protesters risk being injured in a stampede. They also risk excessive exposure to tear gas and chemical burns. [bang] “All I see is tear gas and people scrambling to escape.” Drew Underwood was on the hill that day. “I pull out my phone, because I’m like, nobody is going to believe, if I told this story, like, what is actually happening. And so, as I panned back to my left with my camera, I immediately felt —” [smack] “ — something hit me. I got hit in the face.” Underwood believes he was hit in the face by a projectile fired by the police, which scarred his cheek. “I did nothing to deserve this one on my face. The other people that were shot, that were tear-gassed, they did nothing deserving of that trauma, but we have to live with it.” As the protest winds down, police shoot projectiles at onlookers standing above the highway — [shooting] — and detain some of the remaining protesters, dragging them down the hill. After the protest, Philadelphia police gave their view of what happened on June 1. “When folks run up on a freeway — at that point, it’s not deemed peaceful.” Officers justified their use of force by treating every single person on the highway as violent. A statement from the mayor said that police were authorized to use tear gas “when absolutely necessary in violent situations — if and only if — lesser methods did not stop the violent behavior.” After weeks of tension, the city announced an independent investigation into the overall police response to the protests. Our own analysis of the June 1 incident found that it wasn’t violent and that police SWAT teams violated protocols by using force on cornered protesters as they were trying to leave the march. [shouting] “Give her a hand! Give her a hand! Give her a hand!” “I need help. I can’t —” “OK, feet up. Lift one foot up. One foot. Now stand up on that one foot.”

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