Photos of protests taken by Brendan Lordan.
Around an hour before curfew, I had returned to feeling woefully out of place. The city began to cool as night fell, and the protest distilled into a smaller crowd wrapped around the metal fence along the City Hall side of 15th Street. The outer rings of protestors: the families, the children, local news and curious pedestrians slowly dissipated into the city. Left behind, and still arriving, were a specific class of protestors. They wore goggles, skateboard and bike helmets, gloves, tightly-strapped backpacks, gas masks, bandanas, phone numbers on arms and legs in thick, black marker, secure and practical clothing. They carried cardboard signs, video and photo cameras, spray bottles, flags, makeshift shields. They were mostly quite young and tragically well-prepared. As far as I could tell, they were also generally unconcerned by the possibility of physical confrontation with the mounting crowd of police and National Guard troops. The attitude as tensions rose was neither fear nor the gleeful embrace of violence characteristic of protestors in law-and-order propaganda reels. Those who remained assumed a discipline of their own in the face of the regimented police line, approaching the curfew with neither frenzy nor apprehension, instead facing the possibility of arrest or injury with stoic indifference.
I could not claim the same. It turns out that stoic indifference is pretty hard to pull off in the face of an institution you’ve been told your whole life is the ultimate arbiter of punishment. As strong as my convictions were to see the protest through, come what may, there was something about facing down a crowd of armed individuals who would soon have legal recourse to hurt me that I struggled to smooth over. One particularly tense moment came around 6:45 p.m. when a dozen or so protestors at the front of the crowd voiced their unease with a Philly officer who had been standing with one hand on the barrel and one hand on the grip of a rifle hung around his neck. Their requests for him to take his hands off of his weapon rose into yells and shrieks as he stood there, finger resting alongside the trigger guard. My mind replayed bodycam footage of a cop yelling similar orders at a drunk man crawling down a hotel hallway, sobbing, before the microphone clipped with gunfire and the man crumpled to the floor. Engraved into the weapon were the words “You’re Fucked.” Full acquittal. I twitched.
During a town hall in Sykes Student Union between students and West Chester police in 2019, a student asked why police sometimes approached casual situations with a hand on their gun holster. One officer responded that it was merely a convenient and natural place to rest his hand, similar to putting a hand on your hip. The screams grew louder with no word and no action from the other side of the barrier.
I had felt a growing understanding of the vital role that obscurity played in policing throughout the protest. The day was overcast and all officers present wore large, domed helmets that provided some shade. Still, many of them wore wraparound black sunglasses, specifically the local police. As the sun set, the sunglasses remained, and as I made eye contact with a National Guard member, I understood why. He looked at me, staring at him, and flicked his eyes away. I stared. He looked back, then looked away just as fast, shifting just barely, one hand atop the other on the rim of a riot shield. I found myself shaking my head, mouthing silent pleas to turn around, to kneel, to break formation, to do something with the awkward, unshakable humanity that I saw every time he nervously met my stare. Over an hour went by and still we stood.
Curfew hit and, besides some silent bureaucratic conversations on the other side of the line, nothing really changed. At 8:10, a woman crossed the line. Her arms were full of daisies. She had no protective gear other than a black T-shirt and a red skirt. Climbing over the metal barrier, she walked through the array of police, offering each one a flower. A few accepted. Most did not. White-shirted administrative staff stepped in front of her, trying to convince her to turn around, as she continued towards the parked troop transports, cheered on by the crowd. When she could go no further, she knelt down and offered them her wrists to be handcuffed. As I learned later, the woman was Zoe Sturges, a North Philly kindergarten teacher who wanted to protest in a way that she could explain to children, that even something as innocuous as offering someone a flower would be met with conflict in the current system. The last the crowd saw of Sturges was her being ushered out of sight along JFK Boulevard, met with chants of “bring her back, bring her back.”
Sturges’ detention seemed to ignite something on both sides of the line. I had been so focused on the National Guard troop across from me that I failed to notice the dozens of police cars lined up along Arch Street, or the countless officers in blue shirts lining the plaza overlooking the square. The journalistic part of my brain told me to start estimating numbers. The rest of my brain only got as far as “Wow, there’s a lot more of them than there are of us.” Off to the right were more officers on bikes. To our left, a line stretched across 15th Street. We retreated to the middle of the intersection, milling around in preparation for what felt like an imminent charge. Oddly enough for the long days of early summer, night had suddenly dropped over Center City, and the atmosphere had changed with it. I brushed up on my tear gas survival knowledge with a woman next to me who looked a lot more prepared than I did. The pattern of riot troops indicated a tactic I had learned about earlier in the day from a flyer called “kettling.” Kettling involves cordons of police forming a perimeter around a crowd, then moving forward to force organizers through a controlled area, where they would be seized and arrested.
8:30. The man on quad skates who had emerged as the de facto leader rallied protestors in the intersection center, where they pressed up against a front line facing off against riot police, backed by guard members with shields and batons. He rolled up between the lines and started negotiating as cameras peered over from the protesters’ side and chants rose into the night behind him. Rage Against the Machine blasted from a boombox in the intersection center as I took my place kneeling at the left end of the front line, fist in the air. I found myself almost struggling to take the danger of it all seriously because of just how on-the-nose the whole thing felt. For every subversive, protest expectation-foiling moment where a dance circle develops under a man in clout goggles hanging off of a traffic light, there’s another, comically cliche, where “Killing in the Name Of” blares into the city sky while you kneel with your fist in the air, next to a punk with close-cropped hair and a black bandana. I asked him what I should expect and he shrugged, responding in the voice of a second-semester senior giving his last weary book report. “You might get grabbed.”
“Is that the point?” I asked, a child playing in the street.
“I guess that’s up to you,” he told me.
At 8:48, the police line retreated. The chants were too loud to hear anything that went on during the negotiations, but whatever was said seemed to redirect the mounting tension and sent the crowd of blue-shirted officers across 15th Street walking back down towards the intersection. I sat down at the foot of a streetlight, immersed in the roar of cheers, whistles, yells and whoops that accompanied the line back toward the maze of patrol cars. For a group that faced the consequences of protesting through the curfew stone-faced, they were still fully entrenched in the joy and anger and victory and grief of the moment. “Whose streets?” they chanted. “Our streets.” I tucked my sign under an arm and started the long walk back along Arch Street. Obscured around a corner from the crowd of protesters were more police vehicles than I’ve ever seen in my life. Around 50 cruisers, buses, ambulances and more were parked haphazardly along the road, lights flashing. I heard the distant cries as I continued through Chinatown. “Whose streets? Our streets.” I texted my brother to tell him I was alright. “Whose streets?” I found my car, ticket-free and un-booted, and loped onto the interstate. “Our streets.”
Brendan Lordan is a fourth-year English major with a Journalism minor. BL895080@wcupa.edu