Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse today painted a picture of two protests—one organized and peaceful and a second chaotic and violent.
During a virtual press conference, Papenfuse, joined by police Commissioner Thomas Carter, said the planned rally on Saturday at the PA Capitol steps was a positive event with hundreds of people advocating for civil rights and protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Many of those people were local, he said, and they largely dispersed following the main rally.
However, Papenfuse and Carter both said that, later in the afternoon, a second wave of protesters, described as “agitators,” took to the streets of Harrisburg, intent on making trouble.
“You saw a change in the rally itself,” Papenfuse said. “The police were there to assist, and it would have gone smoothly except for those who were there to agitate.”
According to Papenfuse and Carter, in mid-afternoon, the second group of protesters began marching through downtown, and police set up near Front and North streets to direct traffic around the protesters, who were marching up Front Street.
At that point, an unidentified woman struck a Harrisburg police cruiser with a pole, smashing the windshield, Papenfuse said. This incited other marchers who surrounded several cars with officers inside, with a total of three vehicles damaged with bricks and other objects, he said.
Papenfuse estimated the cost of damage to the vehicles to be “tens of thousands of dollars.”
Feeling under threat, the six Harrisburg officers, who were not dressed in protective, or riot, gear, called for backup. State and Capitol police, in full protective gear, quickly responded and then used pepper spray to “extricate the Harrisburg police officers,” Papenfuse said.
He said that tear gas was not used, contradicting some previous accounts.
“Forces were brought in to control the crowd,” Carter said.
Two Capitol officers were taken to the hospital, one suffering a head injury from a brick and one who injured his hand. Both were later released from the hospital, Papenfuse said.
The crowd of about 100 people then walked up Forster Street and made it back around to the Capitol, where they pushed police up the front steps, with Harrisburg, Capitol and state officers conducting “an orderly retreat” to avoid a direct confrontation, he said. The standoff at the top of the steps lasted about an hour before the protesters suddenly left and headed back downtown.
At about 8 p.m., mounted state officers arrived and helped divide up the remaining protestors into smaller groups around N. 2nd and Walnut streets. Carter then spoke directly with some of the protestors, who finally agreed to disperse.
“We didn’t want nightfall to occur,” he said. “That’s when bad things start to happen.”
According to Carter, this group of people was not from Harrisburg. He said he knew this because he didn’t recognize any of the second wave of protestors, whom he interacted with for hours, and some told him that they were not from the area.
“Most of the things that happened in the demonstration yesterday, happened from outside people,” Carter said, adding that he wanted “to congratulate the Harrisburg people” for conducting a peaceful protest.
Carter and Papenfuse said that they did not know the identity of the woman who they said initiated the violence against the Harrisburg police, but will be reviewing police body cam video to try to determine who she is.
“Regrettably, it turned from a peaceful protest into something quite different,” Papenfuse said.