Zachary Wolk was hearing rumors this week that police were going on a zip-tying and arresting spree at the Democratic National Convention. The protester from Seattle has been camping in FDR Park across the street from the Convention with a group called “It’s Up To Us,” and he wanted to ask an officer if what he was hearing was really true.
Wolk says when he approached a random Philadelphia cop and told him “I want to be safe, I don’t want to be hurt,” the officer responded, “as long as nobody acts up, nobody will be.”
But Wolk was still concerned. He told the officer that he’d heard that police hire “agitators,” or people paid to work an angry crowd and get them riled up even more. The officer paused and said: “Are you a Bernie guy?”
“Yeah, I am, I did support Bernie Sanders,” Wolk told the officer.
“We love Bernie Sanders supporters,” he responded. “Your groups have been nothing but kind to us. We don’t want to hurt you.”
Not every protester’s interactions with Philadelphia Police and others patrolling the DNC have been so rosy. But the majority of protesters and demonstrators have had few complaints about how city cops have conducted themselves. The common refrain is that they seem highly trained. Nice, but almost too nice. Still, they’d rather police be overly cautious than aggressive or violent.
Since Monday, Philadelphia Police haven’t arrested anyone. But they have issued about 60 citations for code violations to people who have hopped fences and others who tied themselves to parts of the Comcast Building. For that, you can thank city government, which recently decriminalized nuisance crimes like disorderly conduct so DNC protesters didn’t have to be formally arrested.
Meanwhile, the feds have arrested 11 people charged with entering a restricted area after they flung themselves over a security fence near the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia Police have communicated with federal officials that they’re favoring issuing citations over making arrests. But federal officials have jurisdiction within the secure perimeter and can, essentially, do what they want in those situations.
But the overall feelings about police from many protesters is that things are peaceful — at least compared to clashes that happened between police and protesters in Cleveland, and elsewhere across the country over the last several months. The relationship between police and protesters in Philly comes with a national backdrop.
It’s still been just a few weeks since police shot and killed two black men — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castille in Minnesota — within just two days. Protests across the country ensued. Five police were shot during a protest in Dallas. Three more cops were killed in Baton Rouge just days after the shootings. This week in Baltimore, officers were entirely cleared in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man prosecutors say died in police custody.
One man who marched in Tuesday’s Black DNC Resistance March said he expected police in Philly “to act like Baton Rouge, and they didn’t.” He said police rode alongside him on bikes while he marched and chanted “fuck the police.” They were wearing polos, not riot gear, like State Police were seen wearing at the convention later that night.
Both Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross have stressed the importance of optics in policing protests, even ones that can become contentious. He said he makes the call about whether or not State Police provide assistance at what times but, “What they are wearing is their business.”
“People respect the fact that we kept our word,” Ross said with the regard to the decision to go with polos instead of gas masks and shields. “I think there were some people surprised of our posture. We’re not going to engage unnecessarily.” However, Ross said later during a media briefing that “if you go looking like you’re prepared for a fight, then that’s what you get.”
Clay Munk, a self-described anarchist from Washington visiting the DNC to protest, described the relationship between protesters and police at the Convention as “tense.” She’s cautious of authority, and aims to find a peaceful line between submission and rebellion.
While she was drawing a sign asking for “community resources” at the camp where she’s staying in FDR Park, she said police have been “sweet.”
Douglas Campbell, a protester from Haddonfield, N.J., said Tuesday that police in Philadelphia have been “gentle,” not like officers they encountered in Camden when their group, Black Men for Bernie, marched across the Ben Franklin Bridge. He told us this story about an encounter that happened during a demonstration:
“The gentleman who lives above didn’t like us and used some nasty language at them,” Campbell said. “An officer walked over, and a bunch people and I thought something was going to happen. Then all of a sudden, someone went “Na na na na” [in the tune of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.] Everyone joined in, even the officer. We couldn’t hear the guy anymore, and the guy turned and just walked away.”
Sure, there have been plenty of Kumbaya moments between cops and demonstrators this week. There’s also an immense sense of apprehension on the part of protesters who roundly seem to be at least a little bit scared of getting hurt one way or another. Darrell Prince, a demonstrator from New Jersey, said that eight years ago when he lived in the area of South Street, he was beaten by a Philadelphia police officer with a night stick. Today? He’s sees an improvement.
“I see they’ve been making an effort,” he said. “But the problem isn’t ‘bad cops.’ The problem is the system.”
Reporters Max Marin and Jenna Eason contributed.