The policeman’s bike spokes squashed against my breasts, the crowd hit my back, the breath was getting squeezed out of me, and I realized I might be in trouble. But since I grew up near Baltimore, I needed to see what was happening at the “Philly is Baltimore” rally on April 30th.
There had been plenty of space in the box at the corner of Broad and the Vine Street Expressway, north of City Hall, with a row of cops blocking Vine to the east, and another row of bikes and cops on horseback forming a similar line to the west. But the crowd, which had been marching south on Broad, suddenly turned toward the eastbound side of the Vine, which leads to the exits for I-95 and the Ben Franklin Bridge, and that was when the police pushed back.
The march started peacefully, like any of dozens of Philly rallies over the last several years: a crowd with signs and loudspeakers in Dilworth Park on the west side of City Hall. (Twitter users were wondering if the City had purposely left the floor fountains of Dilworth Park on, to discourage the crowd.) There was a long line of bike cops waiting on the north side of City Hall and police officers were beginning to gather in tense blue clusters in Love Park, but I had to run to an assignment.
When I finished around 7pm, I stepped out of the building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, checked the Twitter feed, marked the hovering news copters, and hurried down 16th Street.
The crowd had been on the move since its 4:30pm start at City Hall, and I hit it going north at 16th and Walnut. Several SUV police cruisers, lights flashing, and a herd of cops on bikes preceded the march up 16th Street, clearing the road ahead of the marchers.
“Liars! Perjurers! How many crimes have you covered up?” a man screamed at impassive clusters of cops lining the way. As the crowd reached John F. Kennedy Boulevard, a group of police officers on horses were moving in from the west.
A woman on the sidewalk stopped to pick up her small golden Pomeranian as the crowd engulfed them. Another woman, in a bright yellow fleece hoodie, walked a small black-and-white terrier mix, apparently unperturbed by the sea of stamping feet, through the middle of the crush.
The helicopters thrummed relentlessly overhead.
The crowd drew to a halt at Race and 16th as police continued to clear a path. A woman with a loudspeaker, buried in the center of the throng, bawled out her message over the hundreds of heads and waving signs.
“We’re doing this because we don’t want to be another fuckin’ hashtag!” The tinny yell rolled over the crowd and they cheered. “This is our fuckin’ Constitutional right to be the fuck out here!” The crowd surged into its assent as the march continued north, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”
A block to two further on, the crowd stopped again and its front line formed a line of linked arms, brandishing cardboard signs.
“No good cops in a racist system! No good cops in a racist system!” they chanted.
Escorted by a phalanx of twenty or thirty cops on bikes out front, flanked by flashing cruisers, the crowd kept marching north.
Choking swaths of cigarette smoke, and occasional more acrid zephyrs of pot, drifted through the crowd. The noise seemed to increase with each block. People stamped, shouted, whooped, and chanted, blew whistles, pounded buckets and drums, shook maracas, and kept up their call and response to the woman brandishing the loudspeaker. There were bikers, people in wheelchairs, skateboarders, and one teen on a unicycle.
“This is what democracy looks like!” the loudspeaker proclaimed.
Some people had clearly joined the procession alone. Two young women clutched each other’s arms in front of me.
“I can’t lose you!” one said into the other’s ear.
Others had brought their kids to the march.
The crowd carried an amazing variety of hand-lettered signs, many demanding justice for the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray.
“No justice, no peace!” the crowd roared.
“When did protect and serve become obey or die?” demanded one sign.
One woman carried a dismembered pizza box. “Dear white people,” it read. “Silence = consent.”
The crowd, deafening, exuberant, and peaceful, veered east when it hit Vine Street. It hadn’t been cleared, and bemused motorists squashed their vehicles to the side of the road as the march flowed between them. Honking car horns and idling motors added to the cacophony.
“Blow that horn!” a man in a black hoodie exhorted a family of four cowering inside one of the cars. The driver gave a sudden grin and laid on the horn, and the smile spread to his wife and kids in the back seat, and the man in the sweatshirt cheered them and went on the next driver.
A middle-aged couple, trapped while the crowd flowed head-on in a river around their car, stared straight out the windshield, the man gripping the wheel, as if they saw nothing.
The crowd turned north again when it hit 15th Street.
“Why does that truck say ‘counter terrorism’ when there’s no terrorists?” cried one of a trio of teen girls. “I want to know, where are the terrorists?”
The sun was dipping below the buildings by the time the march turned east onto Callowhill, flowing past the square white bulk of the old Inquirer building.
They turned south on Broad, and a growing press of flashing police cruisers gathered to the rear of the crowd.
Things seemed to quiet down when the mass of people neared the Vine, cleared at Broad by the cops, gripping their bike handles. The crowd suddenly sank to the pavement and I wondered how long they’d stay.
Not for long, it turned out. Within five minutes, the crowd was on its feet, pushing slowly south into the intersection. The solid line of police officers warned that it would brook no further turns. Their horses wore clear plastic shields over their eyes. People moved in and took photos, the officers waved them back, and officers’ expulsive gestures seemed to draw the crowd rather than deter it. Suddenly it surged east toward the Vine Street Expressway.
Watching the crowd and taking notes and photos one second, I was trapped the next, when the police suddenly lifted their bikes and used them as barricades against the crowd.
The shouts grew angry and thick and hundreds of bodies jostled behind me. I watched the police officers’ eyes as the crowd crashed into their bikes. The officers’ arms flexed desperately and a deadpan fear flickered in their eyes. My body was squeezed against one of the bikes held chest-high as the crowd swamped the officers’ wall of metal frames and wheels.
I couldn’t move and the crowd pressed tighter on all sides. Feet hammered on top of mine.
I realized the young police officer pressing his bike into my chest seemed to be yelling something at me. Maybe he could see the notebook in my hand, crushed against a tire.
“I’m sorry!” he cried. “I have to do it! I have to do it!”
Then the tension broke for a moment behind me, and I slipped backwards. Something must have hit my face and I rocketed onto the pavement. I was in a forest of tramping legs and I thought I would be crushed. My hand grasped the sharp spiral spine of my notebook. There wasn’t space to get up. A pair of white-uniformed arms appeared and hoisted me upwards by my armpits: a policeman in the crowd.
People in front of me began to shriek and cough, and something burned my eyes and throat. Space opened around me as the crowd retreated, and I fought my way backwards.
A few feet in front of me, the police threw a man in a gray sweatshirt onto the ground and swarmed over him and the yells reached a fever pitch.
A man wearing glasses swam into my view, his face pale against the surging bodies in the dusk.
“Miss, are you alright?” he yelled, eyes fastened on my face. “You’re bleeding.” I suddenly felt the sting and swelling in my lip.
“I got clocked,” I said, and fought my way to the sidewalk on the northeast corner. My right hand was gouged with black smudges from where it had been trapped against a bike tire.
Once on the sidewalk, where the crowd was thinner, I opened my phone’s camera and reversed its eye in the last of the daylight so I could see what had happened to my face. There was a black smudge from a bike tire on my forehead. My front teeth were covered in blood. The split was on the inside of my upper lip. I sucked the blood away with my tongue and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
I began to feel bruises all over my body. Goddammit, I thought, suddenly remembering the CAT scan I had scheduled for the following morning to look at the cartilage that’s already torn in my hip. What the hell did I think I was doing with my body? My doctors are going to kill me. My right elbow burned under my sleeve, and I yanked it up to see the scrape where I’d landed.
Something that looked like it was in a paper bag suddenly sailed from the crowd toward the police, and many in the mass of people gasped and fanned backwards across the intersection, including a woman my own age wearing a blanketed infant on her chest. The sight of that projectile seemed to break the crowd’s single-minded press faster than the pepper spray had.
My tongue poked the hot, shredded, coppery place on the inside of my lip as I turned and walked toward City Hall, its yellow clock glowing as the helicopters throbbed and throbbed.