Activist pleads guilty to federal charge in 2020 Philadelphia protest

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A well-known west Philadelphia activist has pleaded guilty to a felony over actions during 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Anthony Smith pleaded guilty Tuesday to a federal charge of obstructing law enforcement during a civil disorder. The plea comes a couple of months after Philadelphia officials announced a $9.25 million settlement over lawsuits filed by him and other activists challenging the police response to the protests and civil disorder following Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Smith, 31, told U.S. District Judge Juan Sánchez that he and others flipped a police car parked outside City Hall. The judge said people had a right to peacefully assemble and protest but “the right to … destroy property, we don’t have that right.”

The charter school teacher and organizer said little as the judge sought to ensure that he understood the consequences of the plea, which his attorney said will likely bar him from teaching for 10 years. While giving no indication what sentence he will impose in September, Sánchez lifted an order that had kept Smith on home detention since his 2021 arrest, noting that he’d complied with all of its conditions.

Smith declined to comment after the hearing as family and supporters greeted him with hugs, the Inquirer reported. Defense attorney Paul Hetznecker said his client's "bad judgment during that extraordinary moment in our history is not a reflection of who he is as a person, and his longstanding effort to be a positive force in the community.”

Another defendant, Khalif Miller, was sentenced in April to 61 months in prison and Carlos Matchett to 46 months. Two other defendants who pleaded guilty to setting fire to cars during the demonstration were sentenced to shorter terms: Ayoub Tabri to 364 days and Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal to 2½ years.

In March, Philadelphia officials said a $9.25 million settlement will be distributed among 343 plaintiffs in connection with police actions during the protests that erupted in west Philadelphia and along Interstate 676 in the city center. A grant will also provide $500,000 to $600,000 for mental health counseling for west Philadelphia residents.

Videos of Philadelphia police firing tear gas on June 1, 2020, at dozens of protesters on I-676 were spread widely on social media. Attorneys suing over events the day before in and around a west Philadelphia business corridor that is the heart of a predominantly Black neighborhood said witnesses reported residential communities turned into a war zone.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw faced harsh criticism in two audits of the planning and response to the protests. One review cited failures in planning that researchers said led to short staffing, emotional responses from officers and sometimes excessive uses of force.