PHILADELPHIANS HARMED BY POLICE USE OF FORCE TESTIFY ABOUT EXPERIENCES IN WEST PHILADELPHIA AND ON I-676 DURING GEORGE FLOYD DEMONSTRATIONS

In Cherelle Parker, Council News, Curtis Jones, Jr., Derek Green, Featured, Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Kendra Brooks, Kenyatta Johnson, News by PHL Council

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City Council’s committee on Public Safety held a hearing where residents and demonstrators demanded reform to prevent militarized police response to demonstrations

PHILADELPHIA—Today, residents and demonstrators who were harmed by police use of force in West Philadelphia and on I-676 during George Floyd demonstrations, shared their experiences in a hearing held by City Council’s Public Safety Committee. They told stories of injury and trauma caused by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators, neighbors on their porches, and families inside their homes. The hearing was established in a resolution introduced by City Councilmember Helen Gym.

The hearing provided a trauma-informed forum for City Councilmembers considering police reform legislation to hear directly from Philadelphians who experienced the harm that the City seeks to prevent. Residents used the hearing to share their experiences, hold public officials accountable and make recommendations for safer and non-discriminatory policing.

Councilmembers heard testimony from directly impacted residents, demonstrators, and faith leaders who were injured and traumatized by police. Demonstrators on I-676 spoke of the shock they experienced as their common expression of first amendment rights was met with a militarized police response including tear gas that Philadelphia police have not used in over 30 years. Residents of West Philadelphia denounced the police response, which used armored vehicles to fire tear gas onto residential blocks unaffected by demonstrations or property damage, as reinforcing the community’s long-standing mistrust of police. A journalist and a resident spoke of being shot with rubber bullets for filming police on the street in separate instances.

The hearings were authorized by a resolution introduced by City Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large), and cosponsored by Councilmembers Curtis Jones, Jr. (4th District), Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District), Jamie Gauthier (3rd District), Cherelle L. Parker (9th District), Kendra Brooks (At-Large), Derek Green (At-Large), Isaiah Thomas (At-Large), and Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large).

City Councilmembers spoke of the need to use a public process to help repair trust, and implement policy that helps ensure the events of May 31 and June 1 are never repeated.

“For demonstrators on I-676, the militarized police response was unprecedented and shocking — for residents of West Philadelphia, it was a reminder of the legacy of mistrust towards police that is older even than the 1985 MOVE bombing,” said City Councilmember Helen Gym. “We have a responsibility to heal that broken trust, and build a vision of policing that prioritizes community needs, and sees force as a last resort used only to save lives. This public accounting was a necessary step that allows City Council to center its efforts at accountability and reform in the voices and experiences of the communities we serve.”

“I remain disturbed that earlier this year, law enforcement used tear gas on a residential Black neighborhood in my district – a neighborhood that is still traumatized by the MOVE Bombing,” said Councilmember Jamie Guathier. “It is not just disappointing, but maddening that we continue to see the same dynamics play out over and over in our communities of color when it comes to violence at the hands of the state. This hearing gave us an opportunity to lift the voices of residents who were affected by the violence that day, and to recommit ourselves as public officials to the fight for social justice in our city.”

West Philadelphia: “I still fear for my children”

Residents and demonstrators shared their trauma, and demanded the City prevent the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray in response to demonstrations. Others called for a more powerful civilian oversight body.

“As a black man in America, black woman, black father, black son, or black daughter, if you are black period in America, we are afraid of what police officers might do to us,” said Bedjy Jeanty a resident of West Philadelphia who spoke with a police officer leading a line of officers confronting protesters. “I stood tall to him and put my right fist in the air and my head down and all of a sudden I got hit with a rubber bullet. I began walking towards the officer and got hit with his baton, and I didn’t notice that the armored truck had pulled up next to me while my head was down. I was pepper sprayed and everyone was running for our lives. Everyone was scared. My shoulder was dislocated and I was having severe chest pain.”

“I am still a Black in America, and I still fear for my children,” said Bedjy Jeanty, resident of West Philadelphia.

“I want to be clear that the police were targeting bystanders with hundreds of rounds of tear gas,” said Reverend Abby Tennis, resident of West Philadelphia teargassed on May 31. “The police shot tear gas near children picnicking in Malcolm X park with their families. The police shot teargas past elders holding themselves up with their canes as they stood outside their homes on 52nd street. The police shot dozens of rounds of tear gas past a whole large family holding a birthday party on their porch on Chestnut street, complete with music and food and balloons and streamers and cake. The police shot tear gas towards people sitting in their wheelchairs outside of their homes on Chestnut street and Walnut street, trying to get some sun and fresh air, and with no ability to run away. The police shot tear gas past toddlers and mothers, standing on their 2nd and 3rd floor porches on Walnut street.”

“And I want to be crystal clear that this happened to a black neighborhood,” said Reverend Abby Tennis, resident of West Philadelphia teargassed on May 31.

“Suddenly I saw an elderly woman stumble onto the street who had been hit in the head by a rubber bullet. Dazed, she said she didn’t understand why she had been shot—she had just come to 52nd street to visit her niece,” said Amerlia Carter, a resident of West Philadelphia who witnessed “armored police vehicles” drive down 52nd street repeatedly firing tear gas onto the surrounding residential blocks. “I watched as a resident who was maimed by a rubber bullet, and others who struggled to breath, emerge from the white smoke starting to gather on Walnut St… When I finally reached my home it was full of tear gas, forcing me to go back outside.”

“I never heard or saw the police attempt to communicate with us or warn us before using tear gas or rubber bullets,” said Amerlia Carter, a resident of West Philadelphia.

“When I decided to join the protests it was to stand in solidarity with my neighbors against racism, injustice, and police brutality,” said Ryan Bing, resident of West Philadelphia who was tear gassed “a few blocks” from his home. “What happened that day was a massive police over-response of indiscriminate and excessive force against my neighbors and me.”

Elizabeth Bhoj and her husband are doctors living in West Philadelphia, who treated people tear gassed on residential blocks around 52nd street where there were no protesters or property damage:

“A woman ran out of one of the houses carrying her crying daughter, about six years old. She told me that a canister had landed on the roof to their front porch, and the tear gas had gone through the upper windows of her house and had gotten in the kids eyes. We could still see it smoking up there,” Elizabeth Bhoj said. “The little girl was barefoot, crying and screaming, she had a cloth pressed to her face. I irrigated her eyes and tried to calm her down — she thought she had been permanently blinded and was screaming. As she continued to scream, other kids started pouring out of the house, another little barefoot girl, a toddler just in shorts crying, a little boy holding an older man’s hands.”

“We were appalled at the aggression unleashed by the police on a residential neighborhood with a completely undangerous group of protestors,” Elizabeth Bhoj said. “The actions by the police escalated a peaceful situation and clearly injured children who were doing nothing but sleeping in their own beds at home. There was no danger to overcome, no aggression to defuse, so it remains inconceivable to me how the use of tear gas was even considered.”

Rubber bullets: retaliation for filming police

Both journalist Emily Neil, and west Philadelphia resident Judith Palmer, described filming police who shot the women with rubber bullets in unrelated instances in West Philadelphia.

“As I was recording, two officers approached me. One officer looked at me recording and then, without warning, shot me in the leg with a rubber bullet,” said Judith Palmer, a West Philadelphia resident filming on May 31 in West Philadelphia. “No one in the area was engaged in dangerous or disruptive activities. I was afraid that I would be shot again if I continued to document police activity… we are not enemy combatants.”

Journalist Emily Neil stood next to a man in West Philadelphia on May 31 as they filmed SWAT making an arrest, which she documented here. When the man beside her warned the officers that they were being recorded, the officers opened fire with rubber bullets as the two stopped filming and fled down the street:

“I was struck on my back as I was running, and I saw that the rubber bullets were both behind me and in front of me. When I realized that I might be running forward into more rubber bullets, I instinctively sought to protect myself by diving towards the ground. As I did so, I was struck in the head. I laid on the ground for a moment and I quickly realized I was bleeding profusely,” Emily Neil said. “I remember speaking with a medical professional after the event. He asked me, as he removed my stitches, about what happened. He is Black, and in response to what I related, he said: ‘Thank you for being there, but just know that you stepped into a moment of what, for others, is a lifetime.’”

Tear gas and pepper spray: “memories of the incessant screaming”

“I was exposed to copious amounts of tear gas that resulted in uncontrollable vomiting. For days after, I experienced complications such as blurred vision, a swollen and sore abdomen,” said Chris Romano, a local small business owner who was cornered by police on the hill beside I-676. “At times, the sound of children playing brings back memories of the incessant screaming I heard on the hill that day. The smell of smoke from a nighttime backyard fire has resulted in flashbacks of the tear gas and pepper spray in the air that day. I am asking Council to, at the very least, ban the use of ‘less than lethal force’ including tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.”

“We started hearing screams and yelling from behind us due East, and we stood and turned to see people running, surrounded by giant clouds of smoke,” said Rachel Hludzinksi, a demonstrator on I-676. “By the time we turned back around, the state trooper had taken out two cans of mace and began spraying all of us point blank in the face with it. I couldn’t see or breathe, and when I turned to run I was hit by a cloud of tear gas that was blowing straight into my face. The state trooper followed me from behind and continued to spray my back and upper neck with pepper spray.”

“It felt like no matter how much air I was breathing in, I wasn’t breathing enough of it. I felt like I was being suffocated,” said Rachel Hludzinski.

“Every day, I wake up in the morning and I’m there again,” said Max Hibbard, a resident of West Philadelphia who was teargassed on 52nd street. “I’m right there. I’m surrounded by police officers shooting pepper spray at innocent people, launching tear gas into our lungs, shooting smoke bombs into our eyes, shooting rubber bullets into the backs of innocent people who were retreating in fear. Because we had the audacity to say that Black Lives Matter. And my heart’s racing, and my palms are sweating, and my knees are shaking — like they do every morning.”

I-676: force used to suppress first amendment rights

Demonstrators on I-676 were performing a typical tactic, used for decades in Philadelphia, of temporarily halting traffic on the freeway. For the first time in over 30 years, they were cornered with tear gas, and directed by police to climb the hill beside the freeway where police continued to fire tear gas.

“At the top we tried to help people who had caught more gas than us, pouring water in their eyes. It was just a mass of crying, blinded, terrified people. As we were trying to help people up, the police shot me in the leg with rubber bullets,” said Matt Sullivan, a demonstrator on I-676. “We will be in the streets no matter how hard the police try to silence us. But there are enough martyrs. City Council must use its power to save lives by holding the police accountable and by taking away the tools that the police use to silence protest.”

“The fear that I felt being attacked by the armed wing of my local government, for peacefully protesting, is something that will never leave me,” said Boston Gordon, a demonstrator on I-676. “In the days that followed, I struggled to reconcile the hatred and anger I felt with my values as a person with compassion, as someone who believes in loving people even when they make mistakes, as a Christian who believes in love thy neighbor above all things. What I felt is only a tiny slice of the terror consistently described by Black Americans.”

“To protest death, murder, torment, persecution, and racism and have the response of the police be swiftly handed out violence, speaks volumes,” said Boston Gordon.

“The indiscriminate use of these chemicals against peaceful protesters shook my faith to the core,” said Sandy Katz, who marched on I-676 alongside her daughter. “It was traumatic and disillusioning. I am a first generation American, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a father who was awarded a Bronze Star during World War II. I never believed that in this country, one of which I am so proud, I would be harmed for peacefully expressing my opinion.”

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Photo: Rob Bulmahn, used under Creative Commons license.

 

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