“We Need People Here to Be Fighting the Fight”: A Report on the Third Encampment of Occupy ICE Philadelphia

Eight people sit or kneel across an intersection with their hands linked, as police on bicycles and in police cars face them.

by Nick Millman

Philly is still occupying to stop ICE. A new group called Homeless Against Stop and Frisk launched the newest encampment on Saturday, July 28 with a range of demands. Along with allied groups and individuals, it continues to hold space outside Arch Street United Methodist Church on Broad Street, near the north side of City Hall.

The formation of the Occupy ICE third encampment at the intersection of Broad and Arch streets speaks to key developments in the aims of the movement’s coalition and who is part of it. The protest camp still demands the federal abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the closure of the Berks Family Detention Center in Leesport, Pa., and an end to Philadelphia’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS) agreement with ICE PARS is a data-sharing system that, when shared with ICE, enables it to target and deport people who are undocumented. Responding to tremendous pressure from Occupy ICE, Mayor Kenney announced on July 27th his decision to end the PARS agreement. This movement victory will not take effect until August 31. In the meantime, Occupy ICE has taken on a new demand — to end the Philadelphia Police Department’s practices of stop-and-frisk.

Stop-and-frisk is a police procedure to detain, question, and search someone without evidence of illegal activity. This widely condemned practice disproportionately targets Black and Brown people and can often lead to wrongful incarceration. In an analysis of a recent Philadelphia Police report on stop-and-frisk, the Pennsylvania ACLU writes that despite contrary claims, the department has only made “limited progress” in ending its illegal stops of pedestrians since a 2010 lawsuit was filed against the city. The analysis also states that “as many as 20,000 people were stopped in 2017 without justifiable reason, that two out of every five frisks occur without cause” and that “racial disparities also remain…with African-Americans accounting for 68 percent of stops…in a city in which they are 48 percent of the population.”

Aaron K., who participates in the encampment, emphasized that in recent years incidents of stop-and-frisk have become more frequent within certain zones of the city, especially in Center City but also in predominantly Black neighborhoods within Philadelphia.

A member of Philly for REAL Justice explained the connection between the new and ongoing demands while speaking at a protest on July 31: “Stop-and-frisk is directly related to how they are deporting immigrants,” he said. “The way the state comes, and DHS [Department of Human Services] comes, to kidnap Black and Brown children out of their homes is the same way they send ICE to kidnap these immigrant children.” Many unhoused people have experienced family separation when DHS has taken children away from their parents and put them in foster care.

In an online interview, a member of the Liberation Project, which facilitates social media updates about the third encampment and coordinates with other local organizations to support the occupation, drew a connection between the PARS agreement and stop-and-frisk: “We saw the need to add ending Stop and Frisk because it targets people more at risk of state violence (typically black and brown people), and a lot of people who were targeted by ICE through the PARS system were added to the system due to Stop and Frisk.”

The demand to end stop-and-frisk comes from a refashioned coalition of organizations and individuals who run or support the third encampment. The member of the Liberation Project writes, “Whereas the 1st encampment was a coalition of established organizations bringing their networks into the camp, the 2nd and 3rd occupations have been mostly individuals with no ties to organizations coming from a lot of different backgrounds working together.”

Organizations and individuals at the previous encampments regularly convened General Assemblies in order to strategize and discuss issues within the camp. The Liberation Project stated that “One of the affinity groups formed in the 2nd encampment was Homeless Against Stop and Frisk,” which aligned with several community members and autonomous organizers to bring these demands to the fore. The Liberation Project has provided a day-by-day record of the formation of the third encampment and police harassment via a Twitter thread featuring photos and videos.

Following the second encampment’s eviction from its City Hall location, the third encampment originally relocated to Broad and Arch along the Municipal Services Building. The above Twitter thread discusses the third encampment’s forced removal to its current location directly outside the Arch Street United Methodist Church. The Inquirer documents the heavy police force around its relocation, which entailed four arrests. The strip of grass around the Municipal Services Building and the concrete clearing have in the past functioned as a kind of commons for the unhoused to use for rest and community. Yet, the city department of Civil Affairs is now manipulating the creation of the third encampment and the Occupy ICE movement to justify the construction of steel fencing and black barriers to block access to these spaces. While the steel fencing barricading the grass is still present, a newly constructed black barrier appears to permanently line the concrete area of the Municipal Services Building that the unhoused would normally use.   

A black gate blocks off a stairway outside a building
The city has constructed barriers to keep unhoused people out of an area by the Municipal Services Building that they have traditionally used. Photo by Nick Millman
Steel police barricades separate a sidewalk from trees and grass
Temporary steel barricades block off the area where the third encampment originally existed. Photo by Nick Millman.

Aaron K. does not have formal ties to an existing political organization and explained how his own subjection to stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia motivated him to join the third encampment. He pointed out that while a few already established organizations continue to come out, such as Workers World Party and Philly for REAL Justice, the key difference is that unhoused individuals now primarily visit the current encampment for resources, such as food and water, and for fellowship. Beyond the call to end stop-and-frisk, additional immediate demands voiced by the unhoused of the third encampment include access to basic provisions, such as food, showers, ice, water, shelter, and medical services.

While the previous two encampments drew in a wide spectrum of formal organizations that would remain overnight, it now mostly functions as a site to provide resources for the unhoused. Aaron K. liaises with the Broad Street Ministry so that sanctuary, food, and bathrooms are available to those at the encampment. Periodically, individuals have dropped off food or trained professionals have provided pro bono medical examinations. Despite these efforts, other key provisions are still difficult to secure, such as showers and a reliable supply of food.

Trenae Jones, an autonomous organizer and part of the third encampment, emphasized that the reduced number of bodies at the encampment has compromised the movement: “We need people here to be fighting the fight.” Beyond the issue of fewer numbers at camp, the current encampment is frequently subject to regular harassment and surveillance by the police.

Philadelphia Weekly reports that the third encampment has encountered “incidences of drug usage” and health risks, which the city and police used as grounds to interfere with the occupation’s activities. The Weekly admits that these issues often affect unhoused communities and are not limited to the encampment. However, it is important not to frame what are the effects of state and city failures to socially provide for the unhoused simply as detriments to movements that contest reprehensible federal and local policies. Trenae homes in on this point when she voices the need for organizations and individuals to contribute to the creation of “safe spaces” that will allow the unhoused and those battling addiction to access proper services and care. Based on conversations with Aaron K. and Trenae, it appears that the functioning of the current encampment hinges on accessibility to such provisions.   

Now in its ninth day, the newly formed coalition of the third encampment spotlights immediate local issues related to stop-and-frisk and the crisis of homelessness. Groups in solidarity, such as the Liberation Project, Juntos, Cosecha, and Philly for REAL Justice maintain that in addition to stop-and-frisk, the occupation still fights for the closure of the Berks Family Detention Center and the federal abolition of ICE.

Follow Nick Millman on Twitter at @N_Millman.

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