Police used tear gas and arrested protesters after a crowd of thousands marched down I-676, shutting down traffic in both directions.
The massive crowd, protesting the death of George Floyd, first gathered at Philadelphia police headquarters near 8th and Race streets Monday afternoon. The crowd then marched south to Independence Mall and then west along Market Street.
Around 5 p.m. the protesters entered the Vine Street Expressway, shutting down the highway that bisects Center City. Traffic was halted in the middle of rush hour. Responding officers used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
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Both Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney defended the use of tear gas. Outlaw said a crowd of more than 100 people had surrounded a state trooper alone inside a vehicle and began rocking it. When two SWAT teams arrived, members of the crowd threw rocks at them from the north and south sides as well as from bridges above, according to Outlaw.
Outlaw also said the crowd began rushing toward the officers and ignored numerous orders from the SWAT team to disperse. The SWAT teams then fired spray pellets, bean bags and tear gas at the crowd, according to Outlaw.
“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.
“Today's deployment of tear gas was a means to safely diffuse a volatile and dangerous situation, and restore order, when it became increasingly clear that other measures were ineffective in accomplishing that necessary objective. We will continue to evaluate the propriety of all applications of force, and make determinations as the circumstances of each unique situation dictate.”
In a statement, Mayor Kenney said that the use of tear gas during a demonstration was something that he "never wanted to witness" during his time as the mayor and that the decision to use it was not something that anyone took lightly. Ultimately however, he said it was necessary to get the crowd to disperse.
"It was made because we simply cannot condone behaviors that endanger the lives of others, like traversing an open highway," Kenney said. "The officers on site were concerned about the safety of protestors as well as those who may be driving on the highway.
“After issuing several warnings, they made the decision to deploy tear gas to encourage the crowd to disperse. 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 to resolve today’s activity."
SkyForce10 was above the scene as some of the protesters tried to climb up a steep embankment and over a fence to get off the highway. Police made several arrests along the Vine Street Expressway and moved other members of the crowd to the Ben Franklin Parkway.
PHOTOS: Protesters Clash With Police on I-676
Shortly before 6 p.m., a smaller crowd of protesters who were moved to the Parkway knelt to the ground while chanting, "George Floyd" and "Hands up, don't shoot."
The group then marched around City Hall after the citywide curfew began at 6 p.m. Around 7 p.m., an even smaller group returned to police headquarters at 8th and Race streets.
Police announced to the group that anyone breaking curfew would be arrested. More of the protesters then dispersed while a few others remained.
I-676 was shut down in both directions but later reopened.
For the past two days, violence and looting sprang up in numerous neighborhoods across Philadelphia as crowds simply outnumbered city and state police. Fires destroyed businesses and looters emptied stores in Center City, West Philadelphia, Port Richmond, Kensington and Hunting Park.
The Philadelphia protests, which began Saturday peacefully, are part of national outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd. The unarmed black man died following a violent arrest by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Monday that "we have been sitting on a powder keg for quite some time and it burst."
Over the weekend, 429 people were arrested, including 314 for failure to disperse and curfew violations, Outlaw said. There were 236 commercial burglary reports and 378 fires, including 14 confirmed arsons.