Why Did SEPTA Kick Protesters Off the Subway During the DNC?

And why did four agencies, including the Secret Service, treat the question like a hot potato? We dig into a convention mystery.

Demonstrators protest outside the Comcast Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, during the third day of the Democratic National Convention.

Demonstrators protest outside the Comcast Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, during the third day of the Democratic National Convention.

A curious thing happened Tuesday afternoon.

I was on my way to the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center, traveling southbound on the Broad Street Line, when a cop boarded the subway at the Oregon station. He promptly told passengers that if they didn’t have credentials for the DNC, they had to get off — otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed out at AT&T Station. Several protesters, mostly Bernie Sanders supporters, politely exited.

I thought it was weird. For one thing, it made it harder for activists to get to FDR Park, the city’s designated location for demonstrations outside the DNC. It was also an inconvenience for any Philadelphian who needed to exit at AT&T Station to get home or to work. So I asked officials why they decided to boot un-credentialed riders from the subway. 

I also asked them about two other things: First, why had SEPTA announced at various times on Monday and Tuesday that it was temporarily suspending service on the Broad Street Line between Oregon and AT&T stations? And second, why were credentialed riders who got off at AT&T Station suddenly being instructed to only take one stairwell, which coincidentally dropped them off several feet away from protesters? (On Monday, riders could leave through another exit, which took them through a gauntlet of demonstrators behind a fence before arriving at the Wells Fargo Center.)


Delegates and reporters on their way to the Democratic National Convention on Monday walked past protesters behind a fence. | Photo by Holly Otterbein

Taken together, it seemed like there was either a security issue, an attempt to stall protesters, an effort to keep reporters and delegates from walking by activists, or all three.

I put the questions to SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch.

“There were temporary periods of time both Monday and Tuesday during which SEPTA was instructed by Philadelphia Police to suspend service between Oregon and AT&T stations, due to DNC-related security actions,” he said. “There were also temporary periods of time during which only those with DNC credentials were permitted to continue southbound travel through to AT&T Station. … SEPTA has and will continue to follow the lead of Philadelphia Police with regard to these matters.”

Busch said the decision to lead credentialed riders through the stairway away from protesters was “made in accordance with the instructions and guidance of law enforcement partners.”

So, naturally, I reached out to the police after that. What ensued made me feel like a 5-year-old who asks her mom about something, only to be told by her mom to ask dad, and back and forth, and back and forth.

A police spokesperson said the service interruptions and sudden rules “came from SEPTA.”

Then SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel told me “the decision regarding whether to allow credentialed and un-credentialed persons into the secure area has been strictly up to Chief Inspector Dennis Wilson of the [Philadelphia Police Department]. … I don’t know if that has been his decision or the [U.S. Secret Service].”

Finally, a police spokesperson said that subway passengers were occasionally being vetted by SEPTA officials for credentials at the request of Police Chief Wilson and the Secret Service. “For safety issues,” he said, “after 54 demonstrators were cited for climbing a fence.”

On Monday, 54 activists were given $50 tickets for disorderly conduct after allegedly scaling a fence outside the DNC. No one was charged with a crime.

So I reached out to the Secret Service. There, an official said that the AT&T Station is outside the Secret Service’s secure perimeter, and that it didn’t perform the task of controlling who got on and off the subway.

I went back to the police department, hoping it could explain the discrepancy. But it didn’t respond to my emails.

Thankfully, according to SEPTA, the Broad Street Line has operated normally since Wednesday — and un-credentialed passengers have been allowed to take the train all the way to the AT&T Station.

Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.