Three #OccupyICE Organizers Share Lessons from Last Year’s Philly Occupation

By Mara Henao, Stephanie Olechowska and Mar Escalante

Photos by Derry Todd

Reports keep hitting us: children dying in ICE custody, held in cages, babies separated from their parents indefinitely. Many of us are getting angrier by the day — and ready to take action. As protests target Philly’s ICE headquarters at 8th and Cherry streets again this summer, the Partisan hopes the following reflections can help organizers make plans that stand on the shoulders of those who occupied last summer, learning from mistakes and successes. This article begins with the story of the occupation’s first week, as told by three Philly Socialists members who participated, their voices blended together. Scroll down for definitions of some activist terms, and for analysis and specific lessons learned.

How We Launched the Occupation

On June 19, 2018, two comrades and I met at a coffee shop in Center City. One Philly Socialists member wanted to share the idea of doing some type of direct action at the local ICE building in Philadelphia. We decided to call a meeting for June 24, a Sunday.

We contacted as many organizations as we could. We invited Socialist Alternative, IWW, Philly DSA, Liberation Project, Philly for Real Justice, Workers World Party, the Green Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Reclaim Philadelphia, Bucks County Socialists and more (not every group was present at the first meeting, sadly). At that first meeting, we decided to occupy — we decided to start with a rally that turns into a march, which then turns into a surprise occupation. Something that was also key for this occupation was to amplify the voices of immigrant communities, so we reached out to local NGOs that work for immigrant rights, but in the planning stages this was not officially supported by these organizations due to fear of retaliation by the state. They organized a large march on the Saturday before the occupation, which we were asked to not hijack — so we settled on Monday, July 2.

We wanted to occupy outside of the ICE building on 8th and Cherry streets, which is federal property. We knew the occupation would have to be a surprise, and we expected the Philly Police Department to assume that we were going to march to the ICE office, so we planned to occupy while the rally was happening at the location. We had a follow-up meeting with more members from each organization. At that meeting, we divided into two groups: those working on the rally/march, and the other half working on the occupation. We planned for each event, and at the end of the meeting we shared notes and connected one with the other.

We would hold a public-facing rally around abolishing ICE to draw out a lot of people angry about the policy of child separation. This rally would be spread to the followers of all coalition partners and throughout social media and press releases to get as many people out as possible. Plans for a march would not be mentioned, and a march route would not be given. However, marshalls would be prepared to lead a march to the ICE building after the rally. At the same time, a separate team would set up an occupation in front of the ICE building’s three bay doors used for transporting detainees. The rollout would happen as quickly as possible, using non-threatening objects, such as milk crates and coolers filled with water bottles, to cordon off control of the space without sparking the immediate deployment of a federal bomb squad. A gradual rollout of tents would occur as the night progressed to strengthen our position. Crucially, we would coordinate the occupation to begin right as the march approached ICE offices, so that all the people hyped up by the rally and march would support the seizure of the space. 

Our plan was to think at least a couple of steps ahead of the cops, so that we could set up camp for at least one night. We only planned to survive one night — ideally, until the next day at 3 p.m., when the trucks transporting people come in and out of the garages of the building. We also created a media team that would control the narrative of the occupation, to make sure our side of the story would be heard, and to make sure the media was around for as long as possible. Staying peaceful was key as well — if we could bring public opinion to our side, we could create a wedge between supposedly progressive Mayor Jim Kenney and progressive Philadelphians who had believed the sanctuary city lie, forcing Kenney’s hand to listen to our demands.

We worked quickly and effectively. We invited the right people and had the right ideas, as well as pre-planned for as much as we could with the time we had. We assigned tasks and divided the work, and we were militant and responsible.

Everything happened according to plan, and the state was caught completely off guard by the action. We rallied about 300-400 people and took the streets. Our demands were for the feds to abolish ICE, the governor to close a family detention facility, and the mayor to end a data-sharing agreement with ICE through the PARS database that made Philly’s immigrants more vulnerable to arrest by ICE. Realistically, we knew we had a shot at the action achieving the final demand.

My main concern about the planning stages is that we could have done a much better job of utilizing more of our membership base people (from Philly Socialists’ perspective) instead of exhausting our core organizers. There were a lot of members we could have totally activated for this, but I think time and trying to keep the camp secret were big players in how things rolled out.

Derry march

Keeping the Camp Alive

Though it was a successful rollout, it soon became clear that none of us had fully prepared for that moment of occupation. As organizers, we were immediately overwhelmed by the need to be militant and strategic in our dealings with the massed police presence. Tension was thick in the air, because obviously the state had far superior firepower. The only things that kept us from being immediately overwhelmed were our tenacity, our tactical decision-making, and the state’s fear of public opinion. About 100 people stayed the first night, occupying federal property, shutting down a federal facility and surrounded by the forces of the Philadelphia Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security on all sides (there were three street entrances to our occupation). 

The first night was the hardest one, but we made it. We did a great job holding the ground and making sure there were people there. But we could have planned much better for the rest of the time we were there. The rally lasted a long time — there were drummers, and people started dancing. Some unaffiliated anarchists tried to set up a weak barricade, but we had to take it down, seeing that the cops were bothering us about it. We didn’t want to antagonize the police any more. We knew that night, we would have only the people whom we had asked beforehand to stay, and that was not a lot of people. We were hoping to make the place feel safe enough and inviting enough to encourage marchers to stay the night with us. Trust me, it was not easy.

The first night was tense — we had police vehicles behind us on Cherry Street blocking it, we had police vehicles down 8th Street, and there was a police detention center just a block off, full of police cars. You can see it from the Cherry camp location. It is the Philadelphia police headquarters, called the “Roundhouse.” There was also another detention center three or four blocks from our location. We had helicopters surrounding us, there were 30 or 40 units on foot — it was TENSE.

Most of the occupiers were not Leftists with either organizational ties or past histories of organizing. The majority were just brave, unaffiliated people who showed up and stayed because they felt passionate about the cause of ending deportations and abolishing ICE. Importantly, they placed their trust in the organizers’ leadership and judgment in a dangerous situation. Hence, a completely non-hierarchical leadership structure that first night would not have been in line with the collective will. Directly confronting the police required a more hierarchical structure. It was a scary situation, and people were there to support the plan and to support the organizers who’d succeeded at carrying it out; thus far, we had earned their trust.

As the night wore on, the police attempted various physical and psychological gambits to intimidate us out of the space. These included making lines of bike cops, sending Civil Affairs officers to talk to us, threatening to clear us out, and asking us to comply with specific demands. In response, we set up tents and barricades, strategically positioned groups of people at different entrances to the space, and organized lines around spaces we felt we could hold at any given moment of the night.

Leadership emerged in what seemed like an unstructured, fluid, self-directed manner, according to membership in various organizing groups as well as whoever felt that they could take on the responsibility given the tense, uneasy standoff with the state. The ICE camp lasted through Monday night without losing too much of its revolutionary energy, just having a few tents taken down and barricades cleared out — strategic concessions in a war on multiple fronts.

We had planned to stay for only one night, and that was our biggest mistake — we undermined ourselves. We should have planned to stay for much longer.

On late morning Tuesday, the coalition media team, in close communication with the ad-hoc, on-the-ground leadership team, managed to get reporters and news crews on the scene at the exact same time as the cops staged a raid on the camp. About 30 to 40 people linked arms in a line against the police line in front of the ICE building and were brutalized and arrested, while behind them, people who could not be arrested sang and shouted “Shame!” at the cops. This was all captured on multiple news cameras, raising awareness and support all around the city. 

This marked the end of the occupation in a literal sense; cops retook one of the street entrances and two of the three bay doors following the arrests, cordoning our camp off with steel barricades. However, we made them pay in public opinion and pressure on the mayor for our cause. The Occupy ICE Philly camp, in the vein of so many Occupy ICE camps around the country, then became a symbolic occupation only, because ICE vans could then go in and out of the ICE offices. Wednesday was July 4, a federal holiday, so the offices were closed. However, we knew that on Thursday, vans would go in and out at will.

The first raid happened on Tuesday, July 3 at 12 noon. Twenty-nine people were arrested and one hospitalized. It was horrible. It was degrading — but we held an assembly after the arrests, with the people who were left, and we voted to stay. I can’t remember how many votes, but it was a majority. I held that megaphone while crying into the crowd, because I didn’t know what to do, but I felt responsible for what was happening and for everyone who got arrested. The cops had told us the night before that if we took down our structures (tents) we could stay. That kept ringing through my head.

I can’t express how much the support of those people who were there that day meant to me. I thought it was over, but people wanted to keep going. Thirty minutes later, everyone who had been arrested was let go with just a $50 citation, and the police set up their barricades on Cherry Street protecting the garages.

by Derry.jpg

“Independence Day” and a Split in Strategy

Wednesday, July 4 was easy to survive — we planned an “anti” 4th of July party. We had a live band, music — and the cops. All while getting incredible amounts of support from the public. We had so much donated that we had to rent a U-Haul again to move it off location to two different places. The cops were so petty — they gave our U-Haul a citation and hired homeless people to harass us at the parking lot. When the U-Haul was leaving, two police vehicles followed us.

Night time was always the most tense. That night of July 4, we held another assembly, which was supposed to open the de-escalator and marshall roles to camp attendees and also set up some basic community standards. But some insurrectionaries wanted to burn a flag and were mad that we asked them not to, so I personally presented the idea of burning a flag to the assembly and it was voted down: 43 voted no burning, 5 for burning, and 2 abstentions. After such a long debate, people were tired, and the assembly didn’t quite accomplish anything.

We were criticized for “negotiating” with cops. I am not sure what else we could have done at that point. Burning a flag had just placed a comrade in jail the previous week, and we didn’t want to cause any trouble at night time when the media was not around or look violent in front of the police cameras, since this would have put an end to our campaign.

There was a General Assembly on Wednesday night during which people had the opportunity to give their thoughts. However, it mostly centered on conversation about the utility of burning a flag or not. While this was a good exercise for many new participants in direct democratic decision-making, it didn’t really provide an opportunity to discuss the general strategic direction of the camp, despite disagreements beginning to form between coalition partners. Due to the fatigue felt by many of the organizers at that point, that discussion was tabled for another time.

Thursday, July 5 was the last raid, but we had planned a press conference at the camp — or at this point, the remains of the camp. Our response to that raid, and the press conference, worked out beautifully.

I arrived at camp at 12 noon, and I could tell the place was tensing up. At that time, it was “shift change,” meaning new marshalls and de-escalators were switching with the ones from the morning. I wish I could say we had a better planned-out schedule, but we didn’t — we were planning on the go. The environment was too tense. We were continuously surrounded by the police and under constant threat. I think we all knew we couldn’t last much longer. As soon as I arrived, the media was there, thank god, and so were our legal observers. I could tell the police were up to no good, they were making their presence felt, and I heard later that you could see them hiding on 9th and Cherry streets. I wish we could have known.

We were given two contradicting warnings: the first one to move our main camp maintenance tables and tarps from in front of the garage we were still holding down (even though it was one the ICE office didn’t use), and the second one was to not touch the garage doors — but we could keep the camp.

Some people were filming the cops, and the other half were convening in the middle of the camp to discuss what to do. Others remembered what we had planned the day before: If a raid happened again, we would all lie down in the street and refuse to move.

I saw the cops on their bikes coming. I myself was an unarrestable — I do not have citizenship, so I had to move to the sidewalk. I heard the sounds of people screaming, the cops destroying the camp. I knew it was the end of the Cherry Street occupation.

But the media was there, to film it all. Campers were being interviewed by local and national news media. And we had a press conference planned for 3 p.m. At that press conference, we had major NGOs that fight for immigrants’ rights, and leftists organizations: We had 215 People’s Alliance, Party for Socialism and Liberation, VietLead, POWER, Tabernacle United Church/New Sanctuary Movement, Workers World Party, Philly for REAL Justice, Socialist Alternative, Juntos and Philly Socialists.

On Thursday morning, the police began to terrorize and provoke the anarchist-heavy marshall team. About two hours before a scheduled press conference, the police failed to give adequate warning and “bike-dozed” through the remainder of the camp, using their bicycles as weapons against people, supplies and equipment. The coalition rallied, and the subsequent press conference was a symbolic high note. 

However, planning for the future of coalition actions was happening separately. Some members wanted to continue the camp in the ruins outside ICE, and some wanted to regroup and renew the push using different tactics. After a General Assembly in the ruins of the ICE camp, members of Liberation Project and non-affiliated anarchists decided autonomously to pick up and set up camp outside City Hall. They received the support of the mayor and a promise that they wouldn’t be bothered by the cops, and set about using the camp as a platform to support abolishing ICE and ending PARS. The media team began working with the new camp to continue putting pressure on the mayor to end PARS.

I, personally — not as Philly Socialists co-chair, but as a camper — I decided to not occupy City Hall, even though I was in support of the occupation there. To me, occupying City Hall loses its militancy and does not apply the same pressure that occupying federal property did. We succeeded at making Kenney look like a fool and a liar and further shone light on the lie of a sanctuary city. Kenney was forced to acknowledge us and attended a meeting with Juntos, community members, and some representatives of the camp on July 9. [The occupation continued through August; see Partisan reports here, here and here.]

Mayor Kenney announced the end of the PARS agreement on July 27. Ultimately, our goal should be to end the oppressive system that creates institutions like ICE and DHS and the PD and this racist and oppressive culture. So anything that moves the city more to the Left is already a win to me. 

Organizing this demonstration with my comrades was one hell of a ride. I loved it. On Thursday night, the last night, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. But by Friday morning, I was energized. Let’s do bigger things!

Derry 3.jpg

Activist Definitions by Mara Henao

  • De-escalator: someone who can work to keep internal camp conflict under check, as well as be a designated person to speak to the cops to keep them from escalating situations.
  • Marshall: Someone who can make quick decisions when the cops are raiding us — preferably, they come up with a plan pre-approved by the militant campers.
  • Media team: team of people constantly on site taking pictures and videos, and sharing them on social media. The media team also sends out press releases when setting up camp or at strategic times. This team will also have on-the-ground media people talking to news channels and have worked out talking points.
  • Logistics team: a team of people ready to start the organization of the camp. This will include medics, food team, clean-up team and childcare. People usually self-direct into what they like to do. It is good to encourage campers to take leading roles.

Mara Henao and Stephanie Olechowska’s Biggest Takeaways

  • Jail support: Keep campers safe and informed of their rights, and have a plan in place in case people get arrested.
  • Fundraising: Get a Venmo/PayPal account ready to go, because people will want to support — and the easiest way for most people is with money. This money will also help reimburse people who lost items or invested money, and also for a jail fund. Make sure it’s not attached to a person’s bank account, but preferably a pre-set-up organization’s bank account, due to tax legitimacy, etc.
  • A system that allows for flexible, on-site recruitment for marshalls and de-escalators and an easy way to transfer important information.
  • Strong logistics team: Campers will love to help with this kind of thing as well.
  • Encourage leadership and self-direction.
  • Advertise assemblies better: Encourage people to participate in the democratic process.
  • Capacity for quick decision-making: Have a group of dedicated people, who can be arrested, to make decisions when the police are about to attack.
  • Scouts: Copwatch is of ultimate importance.
  • Internal political and strategic thinking education at camp, so people understand the reason why we are doing what we’re doing and we stay political.
  • Have media people ready to talk to the press with talking points, so we present a united front.
  • Social media: Create an Instagram, Facebook page, Twitter, everything to be able to get our side of the story out.
  • Have scheduled events to keep drawing people in to the camp.
  • Every day, ask around during the day who wants to stay the night. Make sure there are de-escalators and scouts staying overnight.
  • Encourage a positive feedback culture and avoid burnout. Have volunteers sleep enough, eat enough, delegate tasks and communicate. We need people to stay sane.
  • Do not underestimate yourself and your organizers. We are capable of so much, but we can be our own worst enemy.

Derry 4.jpg

Mar Escalante’s Analysis and Critique 

Despite the overall success of the occupation, some of the mistakes that were made resulted in a fracturing of various elements on the Left in Philadelphia, specifically between anarchist-affiliated groups like Liberation Project, IWW, Friendly Fire and other non-affiliated anarchists, and socialist-affiliated groups like Philly Socialists, DSA, Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and others. This critique attempts to analyze some of the fault lines of those fractures in an attempt to re-unify the scene and learn from what happened.

First, there had been some roles for the camp designated prior to the occupation, like “security” and “de-escalation,” but the nature of those roles wasn’t very well-defined, and the heightened situation demanded a more emergent structure anyway. The uneven, confusing, and ad-hoc nature of the leadership structure stemmed from our lack of experience and the lack of time we had to plan the action. Those who had stepped up initially to organize people and solve problems at the camp identified each other, then met regularly whenever the situation on the ground changed or problems arose that needed to be addressed. These people eventually donned neon vests to be more easily visible to people who needed them, and the term “marshall” or “organizer” was used as a catch-all term for anyone who made an effort to know what was going on and organize people accordingly. Organizers regularly took the temperature of the people present and informed them of the situation with the cops as appropriate. When mass action was going to be taken, organizers very calmly informed groups of people on the ground what was going on and what had been decided. 

The reasoning behind this was that the camp wasn’t that big, and it was assumed that anyone who wanted to, especially initial organizers of the action, could find the huddle and get involved with strategic and tactical conversations as they felt up to it. This is a general critique of the leadership and decision structure; we had been so focused on achieving the occupation that we hadn’t planned enough for how to maintain it.

When the police took two of the bay doors back on Tuesday and the Occupy ICE Philly camp became a symbolic occupation only, there was strategic disagreement around what to do next. Symbols of resistance are important, but once the general public knows they’re there, the public cares less and less about them. A media strategy in this era knows that the 24-hour news cycle needs a sense of political urgency. The media is always looking for a new story.

So once the camp transitioned from an active occupation to a symbolic occupation, the strategy pushed by coalition partners with Philly Socialists, Socialist Alternative, the DSA and PSL was to transition to a media strategy that emphasized the camp as a symbol of resistance. This would lead to ending the camp on a high note or highly militant action of some sort, ie, “on our terms,” before the cops could clear us out. Then we would transition into other actions to keep up the pressure and further the aims of the coalition. The other strategy being pushed by representatives from coalition partners such as Liberation Project was to maintain the symbolic occupation indefinitely, or until we were kicked out. This was the less popular idea, and those who felt strongly about this strategy felt as though their views weren’t being heard, so they made unprincipled attacks on coalition partners, who responded in kind.

This is a critique of the communication among all coalition partners; however, everyone was scared and tired, and there were no regular meetings or opportunities for comradely discussion built into the structure of the camp. Admittedly, this was due to the need to make quick decisions on the fly and rely on trust rather than systemic processes. However, this led to members of the coalition feeling left out of decision-making, leading to friction further down the line. 

For instance, this conversation about strategy should have happened in a principled, open manner, with everyone who had a stake in the outcome, rather than in rapid-fire bursts of emotional group messages over Signal. However, again, many of the organizers were fatigued and traumatized by state violence, sectarian philosophical prejudices were coming out, and trust among coalition partners was diminishing. This was exemplified during the shift change for night marshalls following the General Assembly Wednesday night. 

This moment would have been a perfect time to have a conversation about strategy. Fault lines were emerging around the planned press conference on Thursday, and the sense that the camp had a fixed end date was troubling to some coalition partners. However, that conversation didn’t happen. Instead, a plan was made among some members of the aforementioned socialist groups, who had been camp marshalls for the past several days, to just give over marshalling positions to members of Liberation Project. The thought was that if they wanted to maintain the occupation indefinitely, let’s see them handle the pressure of having to make decisions in a physical and psychological battle for space. Perhaps they would learn the benefit of taking a proactive strategy rather than continue pursuing a stance of constant reaction. On Thursday morning, the police raided the camp, perhaps taking advantage of the moment of disunity among the coalition. On Thursday night, when Liberation Project and unaffiliated anarchists decided to move camp to City Hall, they did so autonomously.

Socialists stand by our critique of fetishizing the tactic of occupation over the strategy for the campaign against ICE and PARS. However, an anarchist critique might be that the tactic of occupation gives rise to new strategic possibilities, due to the intense community that it develops. This can be seen in the eventual projects of supporting unhoused comrades in their End Stop and Frisk campaign and attempts to squat abandoned Philadelphia Housing Authority buildings in Sharswood, North Philly, as well as various protests against the police that happened through the months of July and August. On the other hand, constantly pursuing emergent strategic possibilities as they arise rather than settling on a goal and using a strategy to achieve that goal represents one of the broader theoretical and praxis differences between anarchists and socialists that make partnerships on the Left so difficult and so interesting.

In the end, it was a mixture of multiple tactics that resulted in a victory: Media tactics combined with occupation tactics and pressure from immigrant advocacy groups resulted in the end of the PARS agreement between Philadelphia and ICE. Everyone involved should be proud of what we accomplished.

. . .

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1 Comment

  1. I’m very unimpressed with how flippantly the authors dismiss the organizers’ collaboration with the police. The dismantling of barricades by the organizers at the request of the cops is written off as necessary and justifiable. I try not to expect too much from socialists because of our political differences but I guess I was wrong to assume that voluntary cooperation police was something unacceptable even from a socialist perspective. I’ll know better than that in the future.


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