Philly activists sue cops over 2020 attacks, win $10 million


At a press conference at the Paul Robeson House on March 20, attorneys representing 343 plaintiffs announced a $9.25 million settlement with the City of Philadelphia. The agreement stems from rampant police brutality in 2020 against demonstrators protesting the Minneapolis Police Department murder of a Black man, George Floyd. 

Plaintiff speaks as some of the attorneys and other plaintiffs watch during the March 20, 2023, press conference. (Photo Credit: Joe Piette)

The city also agreed to contribute $500,000 to a fund for counseling of victims of police violence, to be distributed to community organizations by the Bread & Roses Community Fund. The nearly $10 million agreement is the largest protest-related settlement in Philadelphia history.

On May 31, 2020, Philadelphia police attacked a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, driving militarized tanks through the area, firing rubber bullets at residents, randomly using pepper spray and launching tear gas, which seeped into residents’ homes, in many cases forcing families to evacuate.

Police repeated their brutal assaults the next day, this time in Center City Philadelphia, as peaceful demonstrators were marching on the Vine Street Expressway. Police corralled hundreds of protesters on I-676, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the fleeing crowd, as people desperately scrambled onto the hilly, fenced-in banks of the expressway, with no ready escape. The video of the attack went viral, as police were shown tearing COVID-protection masks from people’s faces and then directly pepper-spraying them.

Workers World photographer Joe Piette, a plaintiff in the settlement, was hit while photographing the action from atop the hillside above the highway. A police officer fired a rubber bullet directly at Piette, breaking his camera and injuring his hand.

Several of the lawyers handling the settlement and a few of the plaintiffs addressed the press conference. Many referred to the war waged in the streets of a majority-Black city by militarized Philadelphia police using combat vehicles and other weapons received free — courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense 1033 program. 

A stipulation of the settlement was that the Philadelphia Police Department end its participation in the program. However, the agreement does not stop the practice of individual police being trained by Israeli police and the Israeli Defense Forces. The knee-on-the-neck tactic used on George Floyd was initially developed for use on Palestinians.

Speakers addressed a concern that many in the broad field of candidates running for mayor of Philadelphia and City Council are calling for increased funding for police and the full restoration of the city’s abusive and racist Stop-and-Frisk program. 

While the settlement is welcome, many question if it will have any impact on a police department notorious for its brutality for decades. One concern, voiced in a question asked at the press conference, was whether Atlanta’s recent implementation of domestic-terrorism charges against anti-police brutality protesters would embolden Philadelphia police, known for their “warrior” mentality.

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