Tuesday night, the '60s descended on the streets of Philadelphia: Hundreds of lank-haired, hemp-clothed protesters chanted at the implacable cops who lined John F. Kennedy Boulevard in front of the city's beautiful City Hall. What were these enthusiastic, if occasionally shrill, demonstrators trying to tell the American public?
It's not entirely clear.
Posterboard slogans ranged from "Fornicators and drunkards will burn in hell!" to "The pro-life movement tramples women's lives!" to "Free Mumia!" But it didn't really matter: Uncoordinated as the protesters were, they succeeded where it mattered, shutting down major central arteries at the height of rush hour and commanding media attention for an entire afternoon and evening. "The whole world is watching!" the protesters cried, as police carted off scores of flailing and screaming marchers.
The fun began early Tuesday afternoon, when local news stations began covering protests scattered around the city, and hovering helicopters captured the images destined to grace Wednesday morning's papers: Demonstrators lying on local on-ramps as police carefully cut through the plexiglass tubing the protesters used to reinforce their arms linked to one another. In Center City, we could hear the chanting through the windows of our hotel rooms, and watched as the careful chess match between police and demonstrators unfolded the police on horseback and bikes, inching protesters out of the streets; the protesters moving back a few feet to lie down once more. The bikes were used as a sort of moving barrier, herding the marchers toward the sidewalk as the mounted police followed close behind.
Down in front of City Hall, the arrests continued, police horses relieved themselves at inopportune moments, and the adrenaline levels soared. A woman was forced to the ground by five city policemen, and 10 long minutes later was led away to a waiting school bus, where others who'd been arrested shouted police badge numbers through the windows at reporters and fellow rabble-rousers.
The police pushed us back off of the boulevard, block by block, curving us around toward the back of City Hall, and each time the wall of bikes and horses advanced, there was confusion and a great deal of hesitation among the protesters: Should we sit down? Why are you backing up? I didn't really understand why the demonstrators offered so little resistance; there was something poignant about the speed with which they obeyed the police, even as they sang their protest songs and banged their conga drums.
The local police officers, under strict instructions to avoid confrontation, were extraordinarily calm and maintaining that cool must have been tough in the face of taunts and shouts of "Fascist pigs!" State troopers, flanking the city cops on horseback, lost their composure a couple of times, screaming at demonstrators as their horses reared back in fear. Despite a tangible anger, there was no real violence but the day did provide plenty of paperwork down at the central precinct: By late Tuesday night, more than 230 people had been arrested, and two cops were nursing bruises.
But even at its most intense, this day of activism was wholly civil; I encountered gracious police and equally kind demonstrators. And isn't it fitting? Cries of dissent in the city of Brotherly Love came to a quiet peace by 9 p.m. culminating in a shared sense of a job well done, manifested in a strangely magnanimous partnership between Philadelphia's well-trained police force and the earnest, if diluted, convictions of the latest generation of protesters.