After weeks of tension, Nov. 17th’s “We The People” rally on Independence Mall took place more or less without incident.
Several arrests were made throughout the day, but given the level of violence that ensued at past events involving the Proud Boys, the self-described “Western chauvinists” and Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, the rally and counter-protest were comparatively tame. No more than 40 attended the rally, while the counter-protest seemed to peak around 1,000.
The rally was organized by Holly Delcampo and Zach Rehl, proprietor of the “Sports Beer & Politics” Facebook page, which is largely dedicated to right-wing memes. The purpose, according to the event page, was to be a gathering for “all Patriots, Militia, 3%, constitution loving Americans, pro good cop, pro ICE, pro law and order, pro life, pro American value, pro gun and anti illegal immigration.” Rehl stressed emphatically that the rally was not supportive of violence, racism or white nationalism.
Still, many remained unconvinced of those claims.
The #PushBack campaign, a coalition of local left-wing and anti-fascist groups, uncovered screenshots and posts that linked Rehl to the Proud Boys. (Rehl, though he did not deny his connections to the group, said he told them not to come.) Additionally, Bob Gaus, co-founder of Keystone United, posted questions about where to meet for the rally on the “We The People” event page. Keystone United, formerly known as the Keystone State Skinheads, has a long history of violence, and Gaus himself has been arrested for assault. Several posts, since deleted, asked about local laws governing open carry of weapons.
And yet, by the time the rally finally kicked off in earnest around 11 a.m., only two members of the Proud Boys had showed up, and neither Gaus nor any known members of Keystone United were in attendance. Meanwhile, the counter-protest that had formed had been standing on the Liberty Bell side of Market Street since early in the morning.
They started on the National Constitution Center side, standing outside the gated-off rally area, but as they started to appear in greater numbers, police forced them to the other side of the street with a line of bicycles, moving forward a few feet at a time. This was not without resistance — one man was arrested while refusing to move. But eventually, the protesters were separated from the rally-goers by a line of bicycles, massive numbers of police and park rangers, the street, another line of police and a metal barrier.
The counter-protest was a mix of individuals and leftist groups that had come out to oppose what they said was the fascism of the rally. Chants included “Migrants in, racists out!,” and “Cops and the Klan go hand-in-hand!” Many held signs displaying anti-fascist slogans along with homemade drawings of Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ new mascot who has been adopted by the anti-fascist movement Antifa as a sort of mascot.
Stephen Perry of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen was in attendance, wearing a leather jacket with a Star of David, hammers and sickles and, in rainbow colors on the back of the jacket: “Nothing To Lose But Your Chains.” “I’m just turning out, representing myself and my congregation,” Perry said. “If they had just come out here without the Proud Boys, without the Three Percenters, I wouldn’t have showed up. Free speech is fine, everybody’s entitled to their opinion, no problem there. But when they enlisted the Proud Boys as defense against our town? Yeah.”
They chanted and played drums, tubas and other horns for hours. They called out to mock the size of the rally, and called for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Department Officer Daniel Faulkner. Women dressed as witches burned sage, and people with Antifa lurked toward the back of the group, mostly wearing all black and covering their faces.
Over on the other side of Market Street, the rally had no set agenda. Men and women took turns at the microphone, speaking about the Constitution and the United States, which prompted several “U-S-A” chants throughout the afternoon. Many wore “Make America Great Again” hats, and a few waved American flags. Standing in wet grass, the feeling of the event was loose, as there were few moments when all of the attendees actually stood together. At one point, two men each had a microphone, and debated the relative merits of conservatism and libertarianism. Later, former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Clark DeLeon, now a Ben Franklin-costume-wearing tour guide at the Constitution Center, spoke to the crowd about his father.
“I’m here because I’m interested in both sides,” he said.
One attendee, Alan Swinney, is a known member of the Proud Boys. Towering over the rest of the rally-goers, Swinney, a veteran of more violent rallies, was dressed in body armor. David Kuriakose, another Proud Boy who was arrested in October when he and other members of the group fought members of Antifa outside of the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York, also was there.
“I go to these and try to block Antifa,” Swinney said. A native of Texas, he typically attends West Coast rallies to tangle with left-wing groups. “We need to get the East Coast like we get the West Coast,” he said.
By 1 p.m., the rally began to wind down. Ted Chmielnicki, another rally organizer, brought everyone in close, so they could hear him without a microphone. He and Delcampo thanked everyone for coming, and Chmielnicki explained that the police had advised that they leave in small groups.
This proved difficult, as video captured by Vice News appeared to show several Ubers and taxis refusing to pick them up. By and large, however, they were able to exit without incident.
Billypenn.com reported that one man was mistaken for a rally-goer by a group of counter-protesters. He was lightly injured when he was swarmed by the group, and one man was arrested. It was at this point that the counter-protest briefly spilled on to Fifth Street, calling out for the release of the man who had been arrested. Four people in all were arrested.
“We needed to show that the people of Philadelphia were united against this Nazi menace,” said Ted Kelly, 29, a member of the Worker’s World Party. Kelly, who was wearing a keffiyah, had led most of the chants for the day, and his voice was hoarse. “We needed to show that, together as a community, all different communities, with our united power, we could scare them off, and that’s what we did today.”
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