Philadelphia police officers violently attacked two partygoers at the M Room early Sunday morning, according to witness accounts. Dozens of people were gathered at the Fishtown bar for a fundraising party for injured bike messengers.
The police reportedly made their first visit of the night around midnight when one partygoer beat another one with a stick or baton. The attacker fled and a number of partygoers went to give a statement at the police precinct. According to a police spokesperson, the assailant was arrested. About 20 minutes later, another scuffle broke out outside the bar, also known as the Manhattan Room, on Girard Avenue just a block from the El.
Two men at the party were ultimately attacked and arrested, witnesses say. One was Gary Viteri, 24, (pictured above) of South Philly. The other, a friend of Viteri’s, was a thin young black man with dreadlocks. He declined to speak to Philadelphia Weekly and requested that his name not be used in print. Friends told PW that the second man, who will be referred to as John, was extremely shaken up by the event.
Amanda Hagy, 28, who was visiting from Brooklyn for the weekend, says that she was walking behind John into the bar when another man ran up and hit him from behind. She says that the attacker, who could not be identified by PW and was not associated with the party, had exchanged words with John around the corner. Hagy reached to push John back into the bar as he began to lunge back at the man.
The police were immediately on the scene, grabbing the man who assaulted John and then throwing John against a large number of bikes that were locked together. Another officer then took out his baton and began to beat John with it. Other witnesses, some of whom did not want to be identified by name, confirm aspects of her account.
“They pushed me all the way to the bottom of stairs,” said Hagy. “He basically threw [John] against a pile of bikes. I was mortified. The cops were just so riled up. Their attitude was terrible. The big black guy [officer] that threw [John] down, I was screaming ‘don’t hit him he didn’t do anything.’ Then another cop ran over with his nightstick and just clubbed him. And then I just started crying. He was pinned. I felt like I was in shock. I’m still shaking thinking about it.”
“He was on his knees with his hands behind his head when at least one officer withdrew a night stick and proceeded to repeatedly hit [John] in the back, forcing him to the ground,” Julian Root, 23, of Cedar Park told PW in an email. “Several other officers had guns (or maybe Tasers) drawn on [John]. Still face-down on the ground, [John] was cuffed while another officer kept his boot pressed against [John’s] back.”
“I’ve never seen a cop do something I thought was wrong before,” says Hagy. “My family was military when I was a kid. I don’t disrespect law enforcement ever. But what the cops did was wrong.”
Viteri was sitting at the bar when he heard that his friend, John, was being beaten by police outside. He says that he came to the entrance and yelled at the cops to leave his friend alone.
“Everybody was freaking out, because they were all there watching it,” he says.
The report alleges that Viteri was yelling “get the fuck out of here” and pointing his finger toward Officer Charles Phillips, the black officer witnesses had referred to. The report also alleges that the yelling caused a “crowd to gather,” and that Viteri was “highly intoxicated” and began to “resist and flare his arms.”
Viteri says he was drinking, but denies that he was drunk. And he says that he only yelled at the police when he saw that they were beating John.
Numerous witnesses confirm that the police pulled Viteri out of the bar. They started hitting him, and dragged him onto the street by his neck, throwing him chest first onto the ground. He huddled into a ball while officers kicked him in the chest and head, slamming his head into the pavement. Police then pulled his arms behind his back.
Photos of Viteri show a bruise and scrapes on his forehead and ear, and what appear to be nail marks on his neck.
According to the report, Tighe Wingrove was the arresting officer. Internal Affairs records two complaints against Wingrove. A 2009 complaint accused Wingrove and a second officer of physical assault, and the officers were exonerated. A 2008 complaint against Wingrove alleging verbal abuse was withdrawn by the complainant.
Phillips was also named in the arrest report. According to Viteri, Phillips was the most violent on the scene. His Internal Affairs file is certainly cause for concern: complaints alleging physical abuse by Phillips were sustained in 1995 and 1999, meaning that an Internal Affairs “investigation discloses sufficient evidence to clearly prove the allegation made in the complaint.” Allegations of physical abuse in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2005, and of verbal abuse in 2001, were not sustained.
A police spokesperson brushed off the accusations.
“Usually when there’s liquor and immaturity involved, I would be mindful of that,” said Lt. Ray Evers. “At a bar, after midnight…It’s not like it was a tea party.”
When the reporter mentioned that Phillips had sustained complaints for physical assault, Evers responded, “Well, you have to put your hands on people in this job sometimes.”
Viteri confirmed that the man pictured on a Facebook page belonging to Wingrove was involved in assaulting him.
According to Wingrove’s Facebook page, he has been on force since 2006. Beforehand, he was a SETPA officer for three and a half years and served in the Navy in the 1990s.
The report charges Viteri with disorderly conduct-language, public drunkenness, and obstructing a highway. The disorderly conduct charge may be vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“This man should not have been charged under 18 Pa. C.S. 5503(a)(3) for disorderly conduct for use of bad language,” according to an email to PW from Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “These types of citations have been illegal for decades, since the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that a man could not be cited for wearing a jacket that said ‘Fuck the Draft’ in a courthouse: Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971). And, more recently, the PA Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that saying ‘fuck you, asshole’ to a police officer could not be the basis of a disorderly conduct charge. Commonwealth v. Hock, 728 A.2d 943 (Pa. 1999).”
Evers says that a disorderly conduct-language charge means that Viteri was arrested for the “volume” of his speech late at night in a “residential neighborhood” rather than its content. But the scene at 15 W. Girard was already loud. Randon Martin of Point Breeze was at the party and recorded a video of the confrontation. It is too dark to see anything, but there is a commotion taking place, and a voice that he identifies as a police officer saying, “You wanna videotape? Well you can go to jail too.”
“The amount of force employed to subdue an unarmed and unthreatening dreadlocked black man was entirely unnecessary and painfully familiar,” wrote Root. “I can’t help but feel that if I (a relatively clean-cut white male) were [John], this never would have happened.”