Black activist leader ‘Ant’ Smith faces federal prison sentence

Anthony “Ant” Smith, a former organizer with the Philadelphia Racial, Economic and Legal Justice Coalition, was sentenced on Nov. 28 to one year and a day in federal prison plus two years probation for his role in the May 2020 protests in Philadelphia following the police murder of George Floyd.  

Ant Smith leading chants in Philadelphia at the “Fists Up! Fight Back! Rally and Teach In” in honor of Breonna Taylor and in solidarity with Louisville and all communities mobilizing in defense of Black lives, Oct. 3, 2020. WW Photo: Joe Piette

The sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sánchez despite appeals for leniency from nearly 200 of Smith’s family members, friends and activist supporters who packed the courtroom as well as another overflow room.  Smith’s sentence will take effect on Jan. 12, 2024.

Smith faced felony charges stemming from massive May 30, 2020, protests outside Philadelphia City Hall. He was accused of kicking a vacant police car and helping to flip it over. After someone fired a road flare into the vehicle, sending it up in flames, and as the fire roared, Smith was videoed throwing a piece of paper into the blaze.  Smith pleaded guilty earlier this year to one felony count of obstructing law enforcement during a civil disorder, which included aiding and abetting an arson.

Earlier this year, two others convicted of burning the police car had been given five-year sentences. Smith’s sentence fell short of the 30 to 36 months the federal prosecutors sought. However, he along with the two others must pay $28,000 to replace the police car.

Before Sánchez issued his sentencing decision, Smith’s attorney Paul Hetznecker argued for a lower level in the federal sentencing guidelines based on experts’ studies he presented showing that any paper Smith threw into an already inflamed vehicle should not constitute “arson.”

State makes example of Smith

Ant Smith speaking during a march for police abolition in Philadelphia, June 28, 2016. WW Photo: Joe Piette

Smith was a prominent organizer of the Black Lives Matter movement in Philadelphia since 2015, leading countless marches against racist police brutality, to tear down the statue of notoriously racist former Mayor Frank Rizzo and to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

Smith’s leadership, whether in serving food every week with Food Not Bombs Solidarity or in the founding of the Philly Black Radical Organizing Collective, put a target on his back.

Since 2016 until recently, Smith had been a staff member and teacher at YouthBuild Charter School in Philadelphia, where he worked to empower 17 to 21-year-old students to achieve education and career goals. Several co-staff members and former students were among those who filled the courtroom and spoke on Smith’s behalf.

On Oct. 26, 2020, the Philadelphia police murdered Walter Wallace Jr. in front of his mother and neighbors, who frantically urged police not to shoot. Thousands of people responded with protests against systemic racism and capitalist exploitation, leading to mass arrests and more police riots. 

The Pennsylvania National Guard arrived on Oct. 28, 2020, to enforce a military occupation of the city. That day federal officers arrested Smith on charges related to resistance activities during the rebellion after the police murder of George Floyd. Many saw the timing of Smith’s arrest as politically motivated.  

Following his arrest, a Free Ant Smith Committee was established by family members, friends, co-workers and community activists. A statement from the group regarding his sentencing read in part: “While we are all aware of the failures of the ‘justice’ system in this country, and not at all shocked at the injustice that was served, witnessing it up close has been jarring. We know that Ant has done more than enough to show that any more time served was unnecessary.  

“His three years of house arrest and the loss of ability to pursue his passion of teaching [due to felony conviction] would have been enough of a sentence as it is. And yet, they’ve still elected to punish him further, in what was a confirmed attempt to make an example of him.

“In the coming days and months, there will be information on fundraising efforts to help Ant and his co-defendants with paying the restitution, as well as recoup money from the police settlement that Ant rightly earned and has had to promise to the courts. There will also be more info on supporting him, his family and his community as he begins his sentence in 45 days.”

Ant Smith issued a statement on Instagram regarding his conviction: “In my eventual absence, please continue to love and support one another. Please continue to challenge and CONFRONT/DISRUPT state violence at every corner. Read, talk, learn and enhance your ability to organize. Our young people in this city need our advocacy. Our elders need our support. 

“Our schools crumble, and our physical and mental health resources remain inadequate. Our housing is largely inaccessible, and our political leaders are often spineless. The state murders our people in cold blood and criminalizes the responses … from Philly to Palestine to the Caribbean to the Congo. Our people must have self-determination. My prison sentence does not change this reality.

“I wish you all love, safety and power.”

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