Editor’s Note: On June 1, Kara Khan, a Philadelphia photographer, was assigned to shoot the youth protests sweeping the city in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. She was shooting video of a showdown between protesters and police when a state trooper fired a stream of pepper spray into her lens. This is her account of that day.
PHILADELPHIA — The protest started peacefully with a diverse group gathering at police headquarters. Fathers holding toddlers on their shoulders stood next to young demonstrators wearing black masks and college-aged students accompanied by their boomer parents.
Several leftist organizations showed up with snacks, water and a first aid tent. Street medics made themselves known with a duct tape red cross on their shirts or backpacks.
Before marching, speakers pleaded with everyone to remain peaceful. At a protest the weekend before, several police cars were lit on fire and downtown stores were looted.
The event was peaceful and relatively calm as we marched past City Hall. Whenever someone started yelling at the police there was a group of fellow protesters there to de-escalate the situation.
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But the tranquil tableau changed in an instant. The chants of “I can’t breathe!” at a George Floyd protest in Philadelphia turned into cries for help when Pennsylvania state troopers unleashed tear gas on several hundred peaceful protesters. “I can’t breathe, I really can’t breathe!” I heard a woman screaming. “I think I’m gonna die.”
As I gagged and struggled to draw breath I didn’t shout that, but I thought it. In that moment I never thought I was going to survive to write this story.
I didn’t know where the march was going until I saw people jumping over an 8-foot fence that leads to the I-676 expressway, a major artery that cuts through downtown. Fellow protesters helped each other over the fence, interlacing their hands between the bars of the fence, boosting people up and pulling them down onto the grassy hill that led to the highway. A handful of young white men in masks held signs that read “Racism has no place” in front of a traffic sign that blinked: I676 CLOSED – USE ALTERNATE ROUTE.
Onlookers watched from the 22nd Street overpass, holding signs and taking pictures, some cheering on the protesters below. It felt like victory. Any anxiety I had about violence erupting disappeared as laughing protesters threw their fists in the air and marched past stalled cars on the highway chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” One protester spray painted “Build Utopia” on the overpass wall.
Then the celebratory mood changed. A line of troopers in SWAT gear were spotted up ahead. People turned and started running away. Others yelled, “Stand your ground.” Two state troopers emerged from the underpass, standing on the median, wearing all-black riot gear, holding long guns and cans of pepper spray, batons at their hip. They started using their cans of pepper spray, and casually motioning protesters away with a wave of their hand.
One officer held a can up to my face. I told him: “I’m press.” It did not register with him. Without warning, he sprayed directly into my face and camera. Protesters remained calm, sat down on the highway asphalt and put their hands in the air while chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” even as the officers continued to spray the crowd and threatened them by raising their guns.
Videos by Kara Khan
There was a loud booming sound and almost instantly the sting in my eyes forced them closed and I couldn’t stop coughing. The crowd started running back the way we came. My eyes closed as I felt someone grab my arm. I heard my boyfriend.
“They got me with a rubber bullet,” he said.
Sounds from a warzone
Hoan Tran was standing on the median taking videos of the excited crowd when he heard loud bangs. Before he attended this protest, his first in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, he believed that the police were there to keep protests from turning violent.
“I saw on the news protesters getting tear gassed but I was very naive, very naive,” said Tran, 31. “I didn’t think it would happen to me.”
He was recording the protest when he noticed things had turned.
“It felt like the atmosphere changed,” he said.
People started running away and Tran could tell they were starting to panic. He stopped filming and tried to calm people down, advising them to stop running and assuring them they would be OK. Then someone yelled, “They’re gassing us!”
During the bedlam he put his phone in his pocket.
The audio he captured are the sounds of a war zone: Rubber bullets pound the asphalt, people scream for help and you can hear protesters coughing and gasping for breath. Tran saw people were struggling to get over the hill that was the only way to escape the tear gas, and stayed behind to help.
He started to cough, choke and panic.
“The group wasn’t moving,” he said. “I had to get up and over the fence [off the highway] to help other people over.”
As soon as he managed to get over the fence, the effects of the tear gas overtook him. “I was coughing uncontrollably and couldn’t see anything.”
Then Tran started to vomit. He heard someone in the distance ask, “Do you need milk?” That voice sounded like it came from a “guardian angel,” he said. “That voice helped more than the milk, honestly.”
As soon as he could see again he rushed back to the fence where people were screaming for help, still struggling to get over it. He put his hands between the rails and yelled, “Give me your feet!” That was only about five minutes before police started grabbing people off the fence and gassing them.
Then Tran felt there was nothing more he could do. It seemed a long walk back to his car.
“I thought that police were there to protect people, to keep protesters safe.” he said. “I saw firsthand that’s not true. We were peacefully protesting. They did not want us to get to safety. They wanted chaos and confusion and to arrest us, ultimately.”
‘Sorry for your loss’
Once the tear gas started I joined the crowd running for safety. Some tried to run past the fence we climbed over to avoid getting trapped. Those who did were met by police with batons and even more tear gas.
By the time I made it up the hill there were a few people in front of me, struggling to get over the fence. Police released more gas into the air. The sound of rubber bullets hitting the ground punctuated the chaos. The bandana I was wearing to protect myself and others from COVID-19 burned my face and I tore it off hoping it would offer relief.
It didn’t. Tears ran down my face and mucus poured out of my nose. Going against all the public health warnings of the last few months, I couldn’t help but spit out the chemicals I was breathing in.
People pleaded for the gas to stop. “Why are they doing this?” someone screamed. I tried to encourage the person in front of me to help a petite woman who was having a hard time getting up and over the fence. She stood in shock.
I finally made it over thanks to a young black man in dreads on the other side of the fence who pulled me down and pushed me in the direction of a street medic who grabbed my shoulders. He told me to open my eyes and sprayed a solution into them. I took maybe three steps before another street medic stopped me, poured solution in my eyes and told me to get as far away as possible. Even more street medics approached me and others asking if we needed anything. Others handed out granola bars and bottles of water.
I walked past another young black man with puffy red eyes, his face covered in milk. He offered me some of his milk to help with the burning but I assured him I was OK. Two young black women held each other on the sidewalk, in tears. I asked them if they were OK.
They said, “It burns, it burns. Why did they do this?”
I dropped to the grass. I was on fire from a mix of pepper spray and tear gas. I watched as National Guard tanks drove toward the scene.
I had to walk back to the police headquarters to get back to my bike and home before curfew or risk getting arrested. I passed a line of Philadelphia police officers in the street and couldn’t help but burst into tears.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” they said sarcastically. “Hope you feel better.”
Photographer Kara Khan is the sister of Daryl Khan, the New York bureau chief, who participated in the editing of this report.