PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Federal prosecutors announced charges Thursday against several people related to the rioting that happened in the city following the death of George Floyd earlier this year. Four people were federally charged in connection to the arsons of two police vehicles that happened in Philadelphia in May.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain says violence in the name of protests will not be tolerated.
“You’re not going to be able to torch police cars and do things like that with impunity,” McSwain said.
A West Philadelphia teacher and activist is among four men facing federal charges. The United States Attorney’s Office announced charges against 29-year-old Anthony Smith, of West Philadelphia; 30-year-old Carlos Matchett, of Atlantic City, New Jersey; 25-year-old Khalif Miller, of Philadelphia; and 24-year-old Ayoub Tabri, of Arlington, Virginia.
Smith, Matchett and Miller were charged by indictment for the arson of a Philadelphia Police Department vehicle and in a separate case, Tabri was charged by indictment for the arson of a Pennsylvania State Police vehicle.
Smith is a social studies teacher at Youthbuild Charter School and activist in the Philadelphia community and his lawyer tells CBS3 he is facing arson and other federal charges related to the burning of a Philadelphia police car during the riots that erupted near City Hall on May 30.
McSwain revealed Thursday that videos taken during the protests helped law enforcement identify several suspects after the police vehicles were set on fire.
“You can’t go anywhere in Philadelphia without being on video, especially during these protests. So my message is, you’re being watched,” McSwain said.
Authorities say a Philadelphia Police Department Civil Affairs vehicle was parked on the north side of City Hall, near Broad and Market Streets, when the defendants allegedly placed combustible materials into the vehicle during the violence that afternoon.
A fire began after a road flare was placed inside of the vehicle, which was destroyed by the fire.
On the same day, around the same time, Pennsylvania state troopers responded to the intersection of Broad and Vine Streets, just north of City Hall. Two state police patrol sport utility vehicles were placed at the on-ramp of Interstate-676 in an effort to prevent protesters from gaining access to the highway.
A group of individuals began attacking the vehicles and shattering windows. Authorities say equipment was stolen, including road flares, fire extinguishers, and “riot bags” containing additional state police-issued equipment.
Tabri allegedly threw a lit road flare into the state police vehicle, igniting a fire that engulfed the SUV. He was charged with two counts of arson, one count of obstructing law enforcement in the commission of their duties during a civil disorder.
“I want to be clear that we at the U.S. Attorney’s Office support peaceful protest — indeed, it is part of our job to protect First Amendment freedoms,” U.S. Attorney William McSwain said. “We take that responsibility very seriously. But violence is not speech. There is no right to riot, loot, rob, destroy or commit arson. If you engage in violent civil unrest and commit a federal crime in this district, we will come after you as hard as we can because residents deserve safe and secure neighborhoods, not mayhem.”
Smith was profiled in Philadelphia Magazine’s list of Influential Citizens for his role in helping to topple the Rizzo Statue that was formerly in front of the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building.
He self-identified his participation in the magazine’s article.
Smith also has a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia after the police response to protests and looting in West Philadelphia from earlier this year.
Smith’s attorney calls the arson charges politically motivated.
“To charge him federally, I think is outrageous and as I said, it’s another example of the political overreach by the federal government,” attorney Paul Hetznecker said.
McSwain denies that.
“Mr. Smith was not in any way targeted by my office. I knew nothing about Mr. Smith or his affiliations until the investigation was nearly complete,” McSwain said. “We do not investigate people at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We investigate alleged criminal behavior.”
Smith represents the community group Philly for Real Justice. They also released a statement regarding his arrest.
“Early Wednesday morning Federal agents raided the West Philadelphia home of Anthony Smith, an outspoken community activist and a leader in the movement for Black lives in Philadelphia,” Philly for Real Justice Smith spokesperson Deandrea Jefferson said. “Smith, 29, was arrested and is being held on multiple Federal charges several hours away from his home at the Allenwood Jail as he and his community struggle to pull together his legal defense.”
Smith’s attorney says he has since been transferred to the Lehigh County Prison.
Each suspect faces a minimum of seven years in federal prison if found guilty.
McSwain was joined Thursday by local, state and regional law enforcement officials when announcing the criminal indictments.
The charges are part of a federal investigation into the George Floyd protests and are not related to the current civil unrest following the fatal police shooting of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr.
Last May, protests and outrage erupted across the country after George Floyd was killed during an altercation with the Minneapolis police.
*story by CBS Philly