Hundreds of rush-hour drivers were stuck on the Schuylkill Expressway near the Philadelphia Art Museum when pro-Palestinian protesters locked arms and blocked the highway Thursday.
According to a state police spokesperson, 32 people were arrested for disorderly conduct.
The protesters, with the left-wing groups Jewish Voice for Peace and Rabbis for Ceasefire, blocked traffic in the westbound lanes of the I-76 Expressway at 3:38 p.m. Officers from the Pennsylvania State Police, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Department took them into custody and reopened the highway. The protesters were transported to the State Police Headquarters on Belmont Avenue, where they were cited for disorderly conduct and released, police said.
Most of those who were cited gave Philadelphia addresses. Two were from Maryland, according to police records.
“I hope the people on I-76 can understand that demanding a ceasefire, that calling attention in every way that we can to the horrific situation in Gaza makes being stuck in traffic not that important,” protestor Rabbi Linda Holtzman reportedly said.
But law enforcement officials said protesting on a major highway at rush hour is not just foolhardy; it is dangerous for demonstrators and people in vehicles.
“They should be arrested, period,” said Mike Chitwood, retired Upper Darby police chief.
“I think the police department did the right thing with respect to opening up the freeway. You cannot block a major thoroughfare for any type of protest. It impacts the safety of the public.”
The protest was “dangerous to everybody,” he said. “Not just the protesters but the motoring public, especially at that time of day. And at the entrance to I-76, give me a break. They put everyone in danger.”
Radnor Police Superintendent Chris Flanagan agreed.
“It’s extremely dangerous to themselves and to the motoring public,” said Flanagan. Stopping traffic on the expressway might have caused a chain reaction accident with “a significant loss of life.” And ambulances or doctors heading to work could have been impacted by the highway closure.
Flanagan said if people want to protest, they should contact the local authorities and get a permit.
“They can get their message out in a safe way,” said Flanagan.
On its Facebook page, Jewish Voice for Peace said it held protests on the last night of Hannukah in Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well.
“Thousands shut down rush hour traffic with banner drops, candle lightings, and giant handmade ceasefire menorahs demanding an immediate, lasting ceasefire, an end to the siege on Gaza, and full Palestinian freedom,” the anti-Zionist group stated.
At the same time the protest occurred, police and FBI agents were investigating bomb threats against Pennsylvania synagogues and Jewish centers, including some in the Delaware Valley. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Germantown Jewish Centre and Kol Ami in Newtown, Bucks County, were among the locations that received bomb threats.
Carrie Adamowski, an FBI spokeswoman, confirmed there is an ongoing investigation into bomb threats but declined to confirm that those specific locations were targets.
“The FBI is investigating a series of bomb threats targeting synagogues in Pennsylvania and multiple other states across the country. The FBI takes all threats seriously, especially those motivated by hate or bias. Although, at this time, no explosive devices related to these threats have been found, we continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners and will remain vigilant to protect our communities.”