Protesters block the passage of a prisoner transport bus in Philadelphia on May 30, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A new entry in Philly’s extensive history of riotous protest was etched three years ago, in the wake of police killings of Black people around the U.S. — and in Philadelphia. 

After protests subsided following the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd (in the spring of 2020) or Walter Wallace Jr. (in the fall), the events passed quickly into urban legend. One pervasive myth is that no one who took to the streets was punished beyond a summary arrest or citation.  

All told, over 800 people were arrested and charged in connection to Philadelphia protests in 2020.

There was a concerted effort to offer restorative and diversionary programs to arrestees, especially the many defendants without a prior criminal record. In the handful of more serious cases, people were not given that option. Some received sentences of up to 15 years in prison. 

Here’s a look at how the legal system responded to the disobedience, civil or otherwise, during those moments of upheaval in Philly. 

Federal prosecutions brought some heavy penalties

The handful of protestors who were federally charged are in various stages of the process. Some trials haven’t yet ended, while others have already been released on time served. 

These cases often stemmed from damage done to police vehicles and intense tampering with banking devices. They include:

  • An illegally armed man who used an explosive to try to open an ATM. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year.
  • Three men — Anthony Smith, Carlos Matchett, and Khalif Miller — were charged with arson in connection to the burning of a PPD vehicle near Broad and Market on May 30. Matchett and Miller have both been sentenced to 46 and 61 month sentences, respectively, in recent months. The trial for Smith, a local teacher and activist supported by a community defense campaign, is still ongoing.
  • A man was sentenced to 364 days of prison — less time than he had already served in custody — as result of his role in burning a police vehicle on the Vine Street Expressway. The sentencing decision was made with consideration of his pretrial detention and to prevent deportation to his native country of Morocco, where he knows no one and can’t speak the official languages.
  • A woman was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for her role in burning police vehicles outside of City Hall. 

Restorative and diversionary programs played a critical role 

Unrest was seen in different parts of the city at different times. Most late spring incidents were recorded around Chestnut and Walnut streets in Center City, the 52nd Street corridor and Kensington Avenue corridor, and the Olney and Woodland Avenue shopping centers.

In the fall, most incidents occurred near the site of Walter Wallace Jr.’s shooting in West Philly, again near the 52nd Street corridor, according to the District Attorney’s Office. 

A significant number of people arrested in connection to 2020 protests were eligible for an initiative called the Restorative Response Program. It was crafted by Troy Wilson of the MCCP Restorative Cities Initiative and the Up Against the Law Legal Collective, and operated through a partnership with the DAO, community organizations, and the Philadelphia Defenders Association. 

The opportunity to participate was extended to people arrested for non-violent offenses — most commonly burglary (different from theft and robbery), often committed by people with no prior criminal records. 

Each of the 834 cases connected to protests in the summer and fall were reviewed, and there were plenty of people ineligible for the program, namely due to:

  • Being armed — All cases involving firearms were excluded
  • Committing further serious crimes — Anyone who went on to commit a serious crime after receiving protest-related charges couldn’t participate
  • Extraneous factors — Being unarmed wasn’t the sole criteria. For instance, people who rented U-Hauls used in burglaries and people who damaged ATMs were not eligible.  

Nearly 300 of the 834 cases weren’t suitable for the program, while 546 cases — and 544 defendants did qualify. Of that cohort, 468 people opted in, and 285 people completed the program.

Those who completed the RRP were much less likely to be rearrested than the average arrestee. The recidivism rate for program participants is 12%, as opposed to 53% for others sentenced for commercial burglaries. 

The RRP wasn’t the only non-carceral program on offer, as Philly has a few different diversion programs. The most common one in 2020 protest cases was community service, and the DAO pointed out organizations like Why Not Prosper and Frontline Dads as especially active participants. 

All told, 68% of defendants participated in diversion programs, 17% of defendants were part of the RRP, and 15% pleaded guilty to the charges they were facing. 

Police were prosecuted, too

A select number of police officers have also faced criminal charges for their actions in response to protest. They include:

  • Former Philly SWAT officer Richard Nicoletti — whose use of pepper spray on I-676 got him fired from the force — was declared a mistrial earlier this month. Prosecutors are considering appealing his case.
  • Former police instructor Joseph Bologna, who saw aggravated assault charges against him dismissed, faced multiple civil rights suits and is still facing local misdemeanor charges. It’s unclear whether prosecutors will reintroduce more serious charges.
  • Former PPD officer Darren Kardos was charged with simple assault and reckless endangerment for the beating of Rickia Young, which you might recall as the incident where PPD officers pulled Young from her vehicle and separated her two-year-old. The charges against Kardos were dismissed earlier this month after a key witness failed to appear in court, but prosecutors have already refiled the case.
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Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...