As several hundred people gathered at South Broad Street and Snyder Avenue Tuesday afternoon, rumors swirled that a community clash was just hours away. A peaceful protest calling to defund the police department and rid the city of vigilantes was about to be under way.
Monday night, photos surfaced online of shopping carts filled with bricks and cinder blocks found on street corners in South Philly. Neighbors swapped social media messages and e-mails pleading to avoid the protesters at all costs and be wary of flying objects for not if – but when – the protests turned violent.
The demonstration, dubbed “March Against Racist Vigilantes & Their Cop Allies” was to begin at Broad and Snyder and make its way to Marconi Plaza, originally. At the outset, though, reports surfaced it would make its way to City Hall, instead, perhaps diverting away from an expected conflict with groups seeking to protect the Christopher Columbus statue. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, more than 150 men were playing baseball at Marconi Plaza.
Mayor Jim Kenney was not on the daily Zoom press briefing, but when asked how prepared the city was should the protests turn to riots, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Tuesday:
“Our departments are very well prepared. By all indications, we’re not looking at the same types of crowds that we saw on May 30.”
He also gave credit to the protesters over the last week, saying they had been “very peaceful.”
“The organizers have been cooperative and I think followed their First Amendment rights to demonstrate in peace, and that’s appreciated in large part. Obviously, we’ve had some tensions in South Philadelphia.”
When asked about the images of the shopping carts filled with bricks, Abernathy said they probably amounted to no more than construction debris left dumped by someone and “not [having] any nefarious purpose.”
“We’re still trying to review that and see exactly how that derived. I will say that these folks have every right to protest and see that their voice is heard. I would encourage residents and others to let them have their voice and not to escalate tensions. If residents want to have their voice, I think that’s perfectly fair, but that confrontation – that escalation – doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose and puts our officers at greater risk.”
One major South Philly political figure and ward leader called the situation: “too damn volatile.”
Joe Campisi, a local landlord and regular of Stogie Joe’s Tavern on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, claimed he didn’t witness this personally, but got “feedback” that two to four shopping carts were taken from Kerr’s Building Supply at 15th Street and Washington Avenue Monday night and strategically placed at corners along Tuesday’s march route.
“The mayor purposefully set this powder keg,” Campisi said.
“Jim Kenney’s been attacking the Italians for the last three months. He renamed the Italian Market. He took down the Rizzo statue. He wants to rename Columbus Boulevard…I don’t know if Bruno or Guido stole his lunch money when he was a kid, but he despises Italians to no end. There’s going to be a pretty big gang fight tonight. You got 400 mounted police. You got 400 horses for crowd control. Two hundred and fifty bike cops. They’re not coming down for a girl scout cookie sale.”
Philly Socialists is one of the organizations on social media that promoted Tuesday’s protest. Founded in 2011, its mission is to create a “just and sustainable future for ourselves and our planet.”
“We have no connection to anyone leaving piles of bricks or rocks,” an organizer wrote.
“We have seen the photos but don’t know anything more about that. The only people who have been violent in South Philly have been the pro-Columbus statue group, who have attacked, injured and sexually harassed counter protesters, journalists and unrelated pedestrians with the implicit approval of the Philadelphia police.”
And David Thompson, an organizer with Philly Workers for Dignity, another group involved in the day’s demonstrations, said:
“Throughout American history, whether it was sharecroppers trying to break out of indentured servitude or factory workers trying to combine for a living wage, the owning class’ police and vigilantes have always met workers’ just and peaceful demands with violence. We saw this once again when the white mob defending the Columbus statue assaulted multiple onlookers including a journalist. As working people, we will always stand against the violence inflicted on our fellow workers by the owners’ thugs and that’s what we are doing at today’s demonstration.”
As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there was no word from the mayor on any of this.