Scenes From a Night of Protests in Philly

Hundreds participated in three separate, largely peaceful marches on Friday evening.

Demonstrators protesting police shootings make through way through North Philadelphia on July 8th.

Demonstrators protesting police shootings make their through way through North Philadelphia on July 8th.

Lisa Bennett had a firm grip on her grandson’s little hand as they scurried along the sidewalk on Allegheny Avenue, trying to keep up with the crowd.

“I was just going to the market,” she said, “and then I heard all of this.” A few feet to her left, dozens of protesters were marching through the streets, chanting about justice and peace and black lives mattering and cops being pigs. The march, one of three that unfolded in Philadelphia on Friday night, had started at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue at 6 p.m. Participants abandoned an announced plan to march to 33rd and Lehigh, and instead weaved up and around until they began moving north — and south — on Broad Street.

Earlier in the day, with the country still reeling from the murders of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night and the fatal police-involved shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota earlier in the week, Philly cops and activists both expressed concern about whether the sky-high tensions would lead to a violent outburst during the protests.

But the marches seemed to unfold uneventfully. The weather held up — thunderstorms had been in the forecast — and protesters got to bring their messages to the masses. The Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice organized the protest that started at 22nd and Lehigh, and has two more planned for what it called a “Weekend of Rage.” Erica Mines, a member of the coalition, said organizers wanted to venture into the North Philly neighborhoods where police violence is a primary concern.

“It’s okay for us to go to City Hall sometimes, but this is where the problem lies, and it encourages people to come out,” she said. Indeed, residents poured out of their houses and stood on the sidewalk, filming the march on their phones and joining in on the chants: “Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!” and “Fuck the police!”

Lisa Bennett winced at the profanity. “I don’t think they should be saying ‘Fuck the police,’” she said, “because police ain’t nothing but people. There are some good cops and some bad cops. We have little kids out here, and they’re giving them the wrong message.”

She looked down at her four-year-old grandson, Corey. “I had to explain to my grandson, he said, ‘Mom-mom, aren’t they the people that’s supposed to help us?’ I said, ‘Baby, they got some good people and some bad people.’ Every action has a reaction. Everybody should be punished when they’re wrong.”

One female protester unleashed an impassioned speech when the march stopped for a short while on Allegheny Avenue near 16th. The police officers who were following the march gave the demonstrators space, hovering about 30 yards away. “We can’t get justice, but you want peace!” she cried. She ran through a litany of injustices that blacks have faced at the hands of law enforcement, and then addressed the Dallas attack. “I don’t want another person to die, whether they’re wearing a uniform or a hoodie,” she said. She turned to face the marchers. “I love all of you.” Protesters cheered. Passersby on the sidewalk cheered.

It was a moment, heavy with the emotions of the last few days, the last few years, the last few decades. It lingered for a few seconds, and then the march resumed.

Simultaneously, another rally was making its way toward City Hall. It began as a humble group of 20 or so people gathered at Broad and Erie streets in North Philly, evidently without a clear leader. Nobody could give a straight explanation as to which organization, if any, was running this protest. But Donterell McDuffie, a man dressed in full suit and tie and dripping with sweat, called himself one of the organizers. “This is your chance to prove what you would’ve done if Martin Luther King was still alive,” he told everyone.

Moving south along Broad, the gaggle grew bigger, as kids in bikes and people jumping out of cars joined the fray. Flanking the protesters were police officers on bicycles and on foot, with cars following closely behind. Some of the officers could be heard carrying out conversations about the recent shootings in Minneapolis and Louisiana and occasionally chatting up protesters, but, aside from one protester suggesting they blast NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” (his suggestion was hushed), there was hardly a hint of confrontation. The group carried signs with now-well-known slogans like “I can’t breathe,” along with Pan-African flags, and chanted demands for justice, including the call-and-response of “Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!”

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Photo by Malcolm Burnley

While the traffic going south on Broad was cleared for the march, a lot of cars going north chimed in with approving horns. Sporadically, a driver would yell “All lives matter!” in disapproval. At one point, a large crowd outside the Liacouras Center attending a Jehovah’s Witness convention looked on, somewhat awkwardly, emoting nothing.

The recent videos of black men shot by police were heavy on the minds of the protesters. One of them, Malachi Love of North Philly, said the images play on repeat in his head — as he assumed they do to the family members of the slain. “That person’s son. That person’s wife. They have to deal with that mental picture for the rest of their life. That’s not something you get over,” Love said.

When they reached City Hall, the group — now having swelled to around 200 — stopped for a moment of silence, gathering in a big circle that blocked rush-hour traffic on 15th Street. Afterward, a woman urged bystanders on the street to come join them, saying, “If you’re not going to stand for yourself, stand for your kids.” Right next to her, there was a father-and-son duo holding up their hands up, side-by-side, while protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!”

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McDuffie brought the circle in, then made a short list of demands for change: first, for a civilian council in Philadelphia to provide oversight of officer-involved shootings, and then, for black Philadelphians to support black-owned businesses. “That’s why we’re here. To make economic change. It is not about violent change, because violence begets violence,” he said.

This protest, too, seemed to chug along peacefully, even after marching to police headquarters, where they were met by a wall of officers. Around 9 p.m., the two protests merged in Center City, before heading down to South Street. One report indicated that a police officer might have been punched on South Street, but could not be confirmed. As of 10 p.m., the last vestiges of protesters seemed to be winding down. We’ll have updates if the story develops further.