3 Thoughts From the Mini-Riot at the Policing Town Hall

The protesters tip-toed right up to the line that separates violence from non-violence. Did they cross it?

A Philadelphia Police officer shoves a protester toward the exit, Thursday night at Lawncrest Recreation Center.

A Philadelphia Police officer shoves a protester toward the exit, Thursday night at Lawncrest Recreation Center.

Three thoughts following Thursday night’s mini-riot at the policing town hall at Lawncrest Recreation Center.

1. Brandon Tate-Brown’s family said on Thursday they didn’t want to see any violence erupt as a result of D.A. Seth Williams’ decision to not charge the officers in Tate-Brown’s death. I wish the protesters who showed up at Lawncrest had listened to them.

I can’t tell you who started the pushing and shoving — and I was right there in the middle of it. An overzealous protester? A jumpy cop? I can’t say.

What I can say is that the protest developed in such a way that it sure seemed designed to provoke the violence that eventually happened. The protesters didn’t just chant and march and disrupt the meeting: They marched to within inches of Commissioner Charles Ramsey and the D.A. and screamed in their faces. The two men sat there and took it.

When you get that loud and insulting and close to people — especially armed people trained to deal forcefully with threats — you increase the odds that something bad will happen, perhaps by accident. All it takes is one person deciding to throw an elbow to have a cascading effect. If the protesters didn’t mean to create the scrum that followed, they sure seemed interested in seeing how close they could get to the line that separates nonviolence from violence.

What did they accomplish? Beats me. I doubt there’s additional support in Philadelphia for holding police accountable for bad actions this morning, or more sympathy for Brandon Tate-Brown. Williams likely won’t be going back to re-examine the evidence in the case. No one was persuaded; if any converts were made, it was to the side of the police. So, you know, great job, guys.

2. While the scrum continued, I tried to move in close to Commissioner Ramsey to get picture or video of his reaction. That’s when this happened:

The video doesn’t really convey how brain-rattling it is to be doing something you think is innocent — taking a picture! — only to find a bellowing police officer advancing on you, forcing you to backpedal before you can think. In the moment, it felt very much like I was about to get my ass handed to me.

You can hear me stammering in reply: “I’m p—.” I was starting to say, “I’m police!” but that made no sense, and I don’t know why that nearly escaped my mouth. I tried again: “I’m media!” He — ahem — didn’t seem to care. I get it: He was doing his job and protecting the commissioner at a fraught moment.

Here’s the thing: I heard D.A. Williams talk quite a bit on Thursday about how difficult it is to judge the actions of an officer making split-second decisions in a high-stress situation. I sympathize.

But my brief encounter gave me some insight into the other side of the situation as well: If a stressed-out officer is advancing on you, it can in turn stress you out — maybe to the point of doing something dumb. I know it’s been quite a long time since my “fight-or-flight” instinct was so aroused. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t do something dumb.

 3. About an hour after the hubbub subsided — but while the scheduled meeting was still going on — I was standing outside the rec center with a couple of cops when a small group of protesters walked by, leaving the corner where they’d gathered after being evicted from the building.

One of them, a young woman, looked over and offered this salutation: “Go to hell, pig!”

Oh, for God’s sake.

I am against bad policing. I am against policing with little or no or ineffective oversight. I am against racially biased policing. I am against bullying cops. I’ve written against all of these things. I’ll continue to do so. And I’ll let the accusations of being “anti-cop” that go with it roll off my back, because I know I’m not.

But Tanya Dickerson, Brandon Tate-Brown’s mother, said it best on Thursday: “I support police. We need them.” She said this even as she considers a lawsuit to shake out what she believes to be the real truth of her son’s shooting.

The young woman who called out the insult to cops did so knowing there was almost no chance any of the officers were going to come down off the steps and arrest her — or punch her in the mouth. Which made her proclamation less revolutionary and more bratty. Tough-guy wannabe revolutionaries are the worst.

We need the police. We sometimes need them to be better. Thursday’s protesters didn’t seem to understand the former; they didn’t do much to accomplish the latter. What a sad waste, for everybody.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.