Following the initial protests in Minneapolis as America grapples with the unsightly murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, activists throughout Philadelphia scrambled to take action, as numerous Facebook events and viral tweets circulated as a city under stay-at-home mandates stewed in their frustration.
After much online discourse, two primary protest sites were available to the public. There would be an unsanctioned protest at City Hall at noon and the Black Lives Matter affiliated protest at 2 p.m. at the Art Museum. Initially, representatives from reputable activist organizations rushed to disassociate from the noon protest for its lack of connection in the activist community and uncertainty of safety. After much deliberation, the two factions came to an agreement and both protests were ready to go.
A viral tweet by Josh Yeboah (@GyasiGetaBag) initiated popular interest during the noon protests. Yeboah released a detailed protest schedule that had every minute from noon to 1:45pm accounted for with things like “kneel in silence 12:00-12:09” and “remind protestors of intersectional issues “12:09-12:15.”
The City Hall protests went as scheduled. About 300 people were present to kneel in silence, as the crowd grew to 500 by 12:15pm. This protest felt like church as hundreds of individuals gathered for a common cause respectfully listened and replied with plenty of down time for reflection.
The crowd was diverse and often seemed unsure of what to do with themselves. Chants of “Hold Them Accountable” and “We Are Worth More” rang in between pleas to support black businesses and reminiscing over the death of George Floyd.
Crowd size grew at an impressive rate as by 1:30 p.m. Dilworth Park had filled in.
“During my protest, I stressed the importance of not destroying our community but building it up together with collaborative, unified, and focused efforts. However, it must be said that it is all but confirmed that outside groups joined our protest with the only intent of creating panic and inciting a riot and I believe they were successful in doing so.”– Josh Yeboah, organizer of Saturday’s peaceful protest at the Art Museum
The Philadelphia Police Department was present at every possible angle, they surrounded the protest at City Hall. A team of police officers circulated the protest with cameras taking pictures of peaceful protestors and would continue to follow protestors as they moved.
Just before 2 p.m., Yeboah, Jerry F. Coleman, Philly Socialists, two representatives of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and other prominent activists led between 1,000 and 3,000 protestors from Dilworth Park down JFK Blvd. The protestors cheered as residents of Penn Charter House Apartment Building banged pots and pans out the window in support. The crowd turned down 20th Street past the Franklin Institute, and then marched towards the Art Museum chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
The Philadelphia Art Museum’s open and visible layout highlighted the sheer size of the crowd. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people of all races, genders, and creeds were gathered in support of the Black Lives Matter protest in George Floyd’s honor. The protest at the Art Museum was a blending of the two aforementioned protests.
‘Things escalated quickly’
There was not an ounce of hostility until the 2 p.m. protests. Black Lives Matter leaders emphasized peace, civility, and laid out their grievances with police in an eloquent and professional manner. Speakers brought up the upcoming $14 million budget increase for police officers at a time where Philadelphia is slashing the city’s budget across the board.
Every so often an outburst about ‘the uselessness of peace’ would occur. As one Black Lives Matter speaker touted peace in the face of aggression, a man holding a banner for the Revolutionary Communist Party called out “What did peace do for George Floyd?” then led the crowd in a chant of “No Justice. No Peace.”
From our vantage point, a young white man in his 20s began to scream “Fuck the Police.” He was joined by less than a dozen people before being shouted down by a similar aged Black man who screamed, “We ain’t doin’ that here! We have kids here, we ain’t doin that” to minor applause. These back and forths were the precursor for Saturday evenings eventual riots.
If the protests had ended at 3 p.m., it would have been remembered as a peaceful and diverse protest. A day people of all colors came together in the midst of a pandemic to make their voices heard – some even handing out masks and bottles of water. However, as the crowd continued to grow some protestors felt there was more to be done.
When the formal protests wound down this marked the beginning of what would be 48 hours of riots, looting and announcement of a pair of curfews in the city. Protesters mobilized through the streets of Center City and soon the presence of the Black Bloc, a group of black-clad protestors often associated with anarchist groups were present. In terms of the Black Bloc, there is no formal head, initiation process, or group to join; you simply show up or you don’t.
Black Bloc behavior is often linked to Antifa, but there are differences between the two. According to one member of the protest “people dressed in all black with their faces covered with an all black bandana, almost always white skin underneath” started the destruction. There is no way to parse Black Bloc anarchists from Antifa or to parse general bad actors from actual protestors.
Yeboah, organizer of the noon protest said, “I’m saddened. During my protest, I stressed the importance of not destroying our community but building it up together with collaborative, unified, and focused efforts. However, it must be said that it is all but confirmed that outside groups joined our protest with the only intent of creating a panic and inciting a riot and I believe they were successful in doing so.”
The Black Bloc continued throughout Center City, “the first vandalism was spray paint along the march route.” Black Bloc participants inspired members of the crowd to join in on more aggressive protest tactics. This led to the destruction of police cars, break-ins at City Hall, and the eventual destruction of multiple Center City storefronts.
The visible and militarized presence of the police was counterproductive to the police brutality protest. Thousands of Philadelphians showed up in protest of continued police misconduct, to which the response of the Philadelphia Police Department was to encircle, stalk, and attempt to dictate the methods of protest.
Protest leaders quarreled with police officers about the marching route leading to the amplification of the Black Bloc.
Saturday, May 30 was the culmination of a legitimate argument about the nature of protests. Does rioting work? Should protests remain civil? The man at the Black Lives Matter protest who screamed “What did peace do for George Floyd?” raises an argument that will be disputed for years to come.