Mayor: ‘White woman’ who busted windshield at Harrisburg protest led police to use pepper spray, riot gear

Police say "outside agitators" were responsible for the few incidents of violence at the mostly peaceful protest Saturday.

  • Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health

(Harrisburg) — A Black Lives Matter protest near the state Capitol was peaceful until a “white woman” shattered a police vehicle windshield with a pole and punched an officer in the face before disappearing into the crowd, according to Mayor Eric Papenfuse.

The incident, along with what city police described as a brick hurled at an officer as people “descended” on police, were what led law enforcement who “feared for their own safety” to spray protesters with pepper spray and don riot gear for the remainder of the evening, Papenfuse said.

Police used pepper spray “several times,” and officers were reviewing reports to determine how many times and why it was used.

Papenfuse said the woman who authorities believe damaged the vehicle was not arrested. Police are investigating video footage to determine her identity.

The protest began around 1 p.m. with hundreds of people gathered at the stairs in front of the Capitol, where they took turns speaking to the crowd through a microphone. Protesters also marched on nearby streets.

At some point after the incident involving the police car, protesters who marched down State Street — back to the Capitol— found a row of police officers with shields, helmets, batons and pepper spray blocking their path.

Some could be seen throwing bottles of water and soda at police, while others urged them not to escalate things further.

Other protesters shouted at the row of police, with at least one man asking if they had seen the video of George Floyd, the black man whose death while in police custody in Minnesota has sparked waves of protests nationwide.

Officers stayed in formation, gradually backing up to the top of the Capitol stairs. At least one police helicopter flew overhead, and three State Police troopers in camouflage uniforms stood at the front door carrying shotguns.

Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter stood where the police line met the protesters, attempting to talk with them.

Speaking later to journalists, Carter who is black, said he supports their right to protest, and shares their outrage over Floyd’s death, offering condolences to the man’s family.

“Yes, we have a history of being treated differently,” Carter said. However, he said he also has a duty to protect his officers, which is why they carried riot gear and used pepper spray.

witf · Floyd protesters say police in riot gear with pepper spray shows ‘different standard’ for them


It’s that perceived escalation that angered some protesters. Tiarra Bates said the way she and others were treated is in stark contrast with the way police responded to the mostly white protesters who gathered at the Capitol twice in recent months to oppose coronanivus-related business closures. Those protesters included men carrying military-style rifles.

“You can’t tell me if I was walking down the street with a gun in my hand I’m not going to get stopped by the police,” said Bates, a black woman.

But Commissioner Carter and Mayor Papenfuse said they believe people who were not part of the initial protest may have been the ones escalating the situation.

“There were definitely agitators in that crowd, not from Harrisburg and not part of Black Lives Matter…” who were initiating violence, Papenfuse said.

Papenfuse said he expects police will file charges soon against the woman who damaged the vehicle.

The Sunday afternoon comments from the Mayor come as cities in Pennsylvania and around the country brace for the possibility of more protests. Gov. Tom Wolf declared a disaster emergency due to the protests, and the state National Guard has 600 soldiers ready to support local law enforcement agencies.

“The Pennsylvania National Guard is ready to provide safety and protection to our communities,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, Adjutant General of Pennsylvania in a Sunday evening press release. “Our troops are trained to protect life, preserve property and ensure people’s right to peacefully demonstrate.”

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