Though many of the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd began with peaceful intentions, anyone familiar with protest culture today must realize that an undercurrent of violence and anarchy always lies beneath the surface. Just look at Philadelphia, where last week’s initially peaceful protest quickly devolved into a flame-throwing rush of destruction.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, 378 fires were set in the city and 246 commercial burglaries were committed during the unrest. At first, Mayor Jim Kenney and new police commissioner Danielle Outlaw blamed the fires and looting on a small group of outsiders, but they later had to eat their words. In fact, official arrest data showed that 181 of the arrested were from Philadelphia, while 46 came from outside the city (with 30 having no address). The worst of the rioting and looting occurred over three days, long enough to call into question Kenney’s contention that the agitators and looters were just a small band of troublemakers. Occupying a city and rendering police helpless are feats beyond the capacity of ragtag rejects.
I live on the outskirts of Fishtown, a section of the city touted by the New York Times several years ago as a revitalized urban paradise with chic restaurants, art galleries, grooming shops, and soy vegan cafes. Before its resettlement by migrating millennial Brooklynites and real estate moguls, Fishtown was home to working-class Irish, Italian, German, and Polish families who worked in nearby factories. Today, the factories are converted condos, but the children and grandchildren of those early factory workers still live in the rowhouse neighborhood and mix freely, if not always ecstatically, with their wealthier new neighbors.
On June 1, Fishtown made national headlines when a group of men carrying baseball bats and clubs opted to protect their neighborhood from the looters and anarchists who had trashed Center City. This vigilante group emerged following three days of media reporting that the “protest” was moving into neighborhoods like Germantown, Kensington, and West Philadelphia, along with reports of fires, blown-up ATM machines, blocked traffic, burned buildings, and threats of more violence. For three days, Philadelphians watched scenes of police officers running from rioters as patrol cars were destroyed or set on fire. One report even showed police officers scattering out of the looters’ way, appearing frightened.
Many Philadelphians asked why the city didn’t stop the violence. If the rioters were just a small band of agitators, why was curtailing them so difficult? On Sunday, May 31, a day before the Fishtown vigilante group appeared on the scene, I decided to view the damages downtown myself.
I was not alone. Many city residents crowded the streets, taking photos of old buildings now covered with spray-painted expletives, hammered-in ATM’s, shattered glass, and structures with floor-to-ceiling plywood where windows once stood. A CVS near Rittenhouse Square was an especially big draw, with its smashed front entrance and an interior that showed aisle shelves toppled over, with merchandise piled on the floor. Meantime, at the highly trafficked 17th and Walnut Street intersection, people snapped pictures of the burnt façade of a building, as well as a clothing store with a broken side window, revealing accessible racks of expensive sneakers.
Some businesses were left untouched. Barnes and Noble was spotless—looters aren’t readers, by and large—and Brooks Brothers’ front door had just one small crack, as if the perpetrator stopped in mid-action, turned off by the sight of so many bow ties. The boarded-up, posh athletic and sneaker store next door, however, told a different story. As I walked, I watched armies of bike cops ride in tandem up and down the streets, though the rioters were in hiding. It was touching to see city volunteers carry buckets and brooms, working together to scrub away the graffiti.
That evening I found it hard to sleep, with the sound of sirens, the wail of fire trucks, and random explosions. People throughout the city and in my neighborhood asked why Kenney and the police were holding back. One could feel the tension—especially when the city imposed nightly curfews, on top of still-in-force coronavirus lockdown orders. The city was on the cusp of a “perfect storm.”
The storm arrived when the Fishtown men, mostly white, decided to help the police. According to WHYY, the men “assaulted three people and heckled protesters demonstrating against police brutality.” The mayor and police commissioner condemned them.
“This is just insane,” a woman tweeted. “There’s a curfew in Philly right now, and there’s a gang of white people with bats and other weapons roving around Fishtown. The police kindly asked them to disperse and then arrested a black person who had a bat thrown at him.” NBC10 reported that men standing outside the police station were making aggressive comments to people. Another man with an assault rifle was spotted on a roof. One anti-vigilante protester tweeted that some of the men “seemed intoxicated.” It was also widely reported that the police exchanged high fives and took photos with the men with bats. Reports of using the N-word and homophobic slurs also made the rounds.
Kenney, relatively distant as the city burned, suddenly emerged from his City Hall bunker and issued a statement. “We do not condone vigilantism,” he said. “We understand that communities desire to protect their neighborhood, and if they want to do that in peace, we would allow it, regardless of neighborhood. But armed vigilantism will not be tolerated moving forward. I am glad police moved in to eventually disperse the group, but I am not happy about how long it took.” The district attorney, Larry Krasner, concurred, describing the videos of men with bats as “disgusting,” though he never alluded to the looters in the same vein.
By Wednesday, June 3, the 26th District police station was the scene of another protest. Fox29 reported that “residents want answers about a group claiming to defend Fishtown.” The protest included the two groups: Monday evening’s vigilantes and their supporters, along with a large group of people upset with the police station’s apparently close identification with the bat-wielding men. A line of SWAT team police officers separated the two groups. Judging from videos of the protest, the Fishtown residents condemning the vigilantes were mostly millennial activists, not “old school” residents.
WHYY reported that among the anti-vigilante protesters, “confrontations with police started to increase, some chanting that Philadelphia Police Captain William Fisher—who leads the Fishtown precinct—should resign.” The group then attempted to get Fisher and fellow officers present to take a knee with them. The officers declined. “It’s my choice not to,” Fisher said.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents Fishtown, spoke to the protesters through a bullhorn. “We hear you and we see you,” he said, emphasizing that an investigation regarding police fraternalization with vigilantes was underway. “But when protesters called on Squilla to reprimand the officers lined up behind him, and he didn’t, the crowd became impatient,” WHYY reported.
That impatience manifested itself when Squilla’s attempted peace-making statement—“As Ghandi said, an eye for eye makes the whole world blind”—was drowned out in boos. There’s no brotherly love in a city torn apart by looting, months of lockdowns, and a progressive leadership blinded by its ideology and contradictions.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images