Sunday night after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, the online broadcast of the Philadelphia police scanner became something of a must-listen. The feed’s silence was broken by intermittent reports of disorder, a little like the occasional bursts of action that mark a slow midsummer baseball game. The police recounted the various acts of destruction underway in Center City in the hours after 10 p.m. in the cool, matter-of-fact voice of a play-by-play announcer.
Long a Philadelphia archetype, the maniac Eagles fan entered the meme-sphere before the NFC Championship Game, when the internet delighted at police greasing light poles with Crisco and a jubilant fan smashing into a subway column. When Sunday’s Super Bowl ended on a failed Hail Mary from Tom Brady, the Philly streets filled as if a stadium had suddenly emptied downtown (the game was played in Minneapolis). Tens of thousands of people chanted and sang and turned the center of America’s sixth-largest city into a full-fledged party.
The tab for this frenzied disobedience was relatively modest, all things considered: a flipped car, several downed traffic lights, a few dismantled light poles, a smashed window at Macy’s, a crumpled awning at the Ritz-Carlton, and a food fight/looting in a gas station. Four arrests were made, Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. told Philly.com on Monday.* The night had been a rambunctious but ultimately harmless affair—proof, PlanPhilly’s Diana Lu wrote, that “we can win at sportsball and throw a rad street party without calamity.”
Commissioner Ross had a more moderated, but still charitable view, particularly for someone who had been hit in the head with a bottle. “The lion’s share of people celebrate peacefully, but you’re going to get some idiots out there that feel like, for whatever reason, they have to destroy property. … I don’t get what people do and why they do it.”
That police presumption of general good faith in the crowd goes a long way toward explaining why events like Sunday night’s celebration turn out OK. Instead of crowd-control weapons, local cops shot videos. They gave high-fives and took photos with fans. It was evidence both of a police force enjoying an Eagles win and one that did not approach citizens as adversaries.
The media often uses a racist double standard to evaluate the behavior of white sports fans as compared with that of black civil rights protesters. White people flipping over cars? Boys will be boys. Black people blocking traffic? There’s a riot going on. Many observers were quick to call out the language of privilege used to exonerate a crowd that appeared to be largely white, citing sentences like this one, from the Associated Press: “Overzealous fans smashed windows, climbed traffic lights and trashed some convenience stores.” Overzealous is throwing a hard block in a pick-up basketball game, not breaking into Macy’s.
But this is also what a proper police response to a big crowd should look like. Philly police conceded beforehand that it would be dealing with a bunch of drunks in a concrete jungle gym and acted accordingly. “After a while you do have to relinquish the street, provided people are being peaceful,” Ross had told reporters last week. “You’re going to create more havoc trying to [stop them,] and you have to have somewhere for people to go.”
That attitude should be credited with maintaining a state of contained bedlam in Philadelphia on Sunday night. It was by no means guaranteed: In 2008, the Phillies’ first World Series victory since 1980 unleashed a celebratory riot in which 76 people were arrested. At the time, Ross compared the scene to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. A more tragic precedent occurred in Boston in 2004, when an estimated 80,000 people flooded the streets after the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the ALCS. In an attempt to disperse the crowd, the Boston Police shot a 21-year-old woman, Victoria Snelgrave, in the eye with a pepper-spray-filled plastic ball. She died the next day. In Europe, police often have no choice but to respond to sporting events in SWAT gear, since soccer riots—like the pitched battle between England and Russia supporters in Marseille two summers ago—often feature violent personal attacks.
In the U.S., marchers who turn violent are more often attacking the street furniture or the windows of a local convenience store. That police in Philadelphia kept the clubs sheathed and the tear gas off the streets may have induced moderation from the crowd; conversely, police with military-grade weapons and gas masks do not invite conversation or high-fives. Studies have shown police assumptions about crowds are self-fulfilling. “Assume a unified crowd and you end up with a unified crowd,” writes Dominic Packer, a professor of psychology at Lehigh University. “Assume a dangerous crowd and treat it as dangerous—weapons drawn, orders shouted by megaphone, heads knocked—and you get a dangerous crowd.”
The question we should be asking now is not why sports rioters are not more severely punished, but how we can convince police departments to show that same good faith and tolerance toward groups like Black Lives Matter or anti-Trump protesters. There is no different handbook at work here. Good-natured crowd control isn’t reserved for sports, but for white people—it was on display, for example, at the 2017 Women’s Marches, where officers greeted marchers in uniform, not in riot gear.
Protests and celebrations are motivated by the same fundamental desire: to take possession of public space and revel in the power to do so. Philadelphia on Sunday night showed what happens when a police force understands its responsibility as one to protect people before property.
*Correction, Feb. 5, 2018: This post originally misstated the number of arrests that took place overnight after the Super Bowl. Though the Philadelphia mayor’s office reported three earlier on Monday, the commissioner reported four by publication time.