Philly mayor, police commissioner defend use of tear gas on protesters

Police officers arresting protesters on the Vine Street Expressway
Philadelphia police officers arrest protesters on the Vine Street Expressway, June 1, 2020. Photo credit KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw are defending the use of tear gas on the group of protesters who flooded the Vine Street Expressway Monday evening.

The mayor and commissioner said the police had no choice because some of the protesters became violent. The protesters say that was not the case. 

Around 5 p.m. Monday, officials say, about 100 protesters were marching through the city without any incident, when they made their way onto the Vine between the 20th and 22nd street bridges.

Police say some of the protesters surrounded a state police SUV on the highway and rocked it. SWAT arrived, and police say some people were throwing rocks at the officers and started to rush toward them. That's when police say they used smoke and tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bags.

Many at the scene were arrested.

Outlaw said they had to safely defuse a volatile and dangerous situation and restore order after other measures didn't work.

“We have repeatedly assured our great communities that we will protect, preserve, and uphold every person's constitutional right to protest. However, we can not tolerate acts of violence and other criminal activity,” Outlaw said in a statement.

She continued further at a Tuesday briefing, noting that when authorities deploy tear gas, there’s a reason.

“It is to disperse but also to make arrests after,” she said.

Kenney said he was disappointed to see peaceful protests for an important cause diminished by behavior that threatens public safety, such as marching on an open highway.

“The use of tear gas during a demonstration is something that I never wanted to witness during my time as mayor,” he admitted.

Officers on site were concerned about the safety of everyone, whether they were on foot or in their cars.

“While I regret that it came to that, and I am disturbed by the footage that I’ve seen, I support decisions made by the department," the mayor said.

Kenney noted that nine times out of 10, organized protest groups tell the city the route they are taking, so police can accommodate and keep it safe. He said they were not informed where this group was going.

City officials believe there is a central group within the protesters that is organizing the turmoil. 

“I hate this entire thing, I wish none of this ever happened,” Kenney added. “We are stuck with the issue that every day, something happens that we may not be prepared for.”

Protesters on the highway say they were being peaceful the entire time, and it was the police who escalated the situation. As in any case when police apply such methods, the Internal Affairs Division will investigate the decisions made, including an incident caught on camera of one officer pulling down a protester’s face mask and spraying her in the face with pepper spray.

To date, at least three people have died in connection with the civil unrest, including a 19-year-old student who died from a looting injury. Another died while trying to burglarize a gun store, and a third died while trying to blow up an ATM.

KYW Newsradio's Tim Jimenez and Kristen Johanson contributed to this report.