A report on the situation at #OccupyICEPHL, where “in the shadow of the obscene monument to power that is Philly city hall, a majority Black coalition of unhoused folks add their voices in opposition to the mayor and the city and in defense of immigrants.”
Something incredible is happening at OccupyICE Philadelphia right now. The encampment, which is in its third week at city hall, is developing in a truly revolutionary direction. Yesterday a crew of unhoused folks militantly and autonomously took to the streets around city hall in an unplanned spontaneous march, shutting down one of the busiest intersections in Philadelphia for almost an hour in support of immigrants. We talk a lot about solidarity and about unifying proletarian struggles: this is the real thing. At this point the encampment is primarily run by unhoused comrades and they are holding down a fully built out, autonomously run and organized immigrant solidarity occupation that is a beautiful eyesore on one of Philly’s most esteemed tourist attractions.
The Kenney administration is livid, although thanks to the beatings they took in the press for the beatings we took from police when they cleared the first encampment at ICE offices at 8th and Cherry, they’re playing friendly and looking to reconcile. Long term immigrant activist groups and people inside the administration expect the declaration of the end of PARS—the police information sharing agreement that has helped Philly’s ICE office become the highest per capita arrest and capture major city in the country—any day now. Ending PARS is the first of the movement’s three demands, the other two being shutting down Berks, a horrifically abusive “family detention center” in PA, and Abolishing ICE.
This would be a huge victory, and the culmination of almost a decade of hard work from the city’s immigrant movement. But we haven’t won yet, and many in the Philly activist networks, tired from weeks of hard work, infighting, and social agitation, and having heard the news that Kenney is likely to give in, have stepped back and become demobilized (ourselves included): right as we are on the cusp of winning! We need to keep fighting, keep pushing right now, because if momentum completely slips Kenney can waffle on PARS and we could achieve nothing for all our efforts.
Luckily for all of us, the unhoused community has held it down and kept this movement alive. Over the last two weeks activists of all ideological stripes, anarchist, socialist, Marxist, nihilist, ultra and whatever else, have almost entirely stepped back from living at the camp, and those that do come down rotate in and out for brief periods while the unhoused people keep it going. As one of those organizers, let me just say: this has been an incredibly good thing. Some of the unhoused folks have political experience from Occupy Philadelphia back in 2011, others from their day to day lives in the streets, still others have very rapidly politicized within the OccupyICE encampment. They are maintaining a 24/7 protest and keeping attention focused on ICE, opening up room for people to join the fight on other fronts. They are asking us to take advantage of this opportunity!
In the shadow of the obscene monument to power that is Philly city hall, a majority Black coalition of unhoused folks add their voices in opposition to the mayor and the city and in defense of immigrants. Occupiers stay on the megaphone all day long. Today, Gramma Kim, an unhoused comrade living at the camp, spent three hours making heart-wrenching statements to the people of Philadelphia, soap boxing with the megaphone all afternoon: “What would you do if your children were in a cage? Wouldn’t you fight? We have to stop this!”
Every morning the camp crew wakes up the Marriott hotel across the street with humorous musings on the loudspeaker. By 9am, comrades from the MOVE organization drop off fresh vegetables grown in their garden, and Food not Bombs is dropping food for lunch and dinner while unhoused occupiers are staffing the kitchen to distribute it. Donations have slowed to a trickle, but there are still a whole lot of shared meals, cigs, and experiences.
“BUT COMRADES, SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. SOMETHING BIG, SOMETHING REAL. WE’RE VERY CLOSE TO SIGNIFICANTLY DAMAGING ICE’S ABILITY TO ROUND PEOPLE UP IN THE CITY, AND FROM THERE, TO BUILDING SOMETHING EVEN BIGGER.”
To give you just one example of what I see down here: There was an unhoused man, I wont name him but folks from the camp will know who I’m talking about, that during the first few days at City Hall would come through camp and just overturn tables, yell and scream, he even shoved someone, and we had to physically remove him from the camp multiple times. We got him to a shelter one night, but when he came back the next night some concerned activists were considering sectioning him. I’m so glad they didn’t, because now he holds down the kitchen and is one of the people most concerned with keeping the camp tidy. He’s part of the movement, more a part of it day to day now than me or the other people who had to chase him out of camp those few times. OccupyICE has become a transformative space for people joining in struggle.
Of course, it’s not at all rainbows and gumdrops. As a comrade said: “…it’s certainly messy down here. There’s no way to keep your hands clean, figuratively speaking. You get pulled into some shit and some drama pretty quickly if you aren’t careful.” It’s true. A lot of us occupiers have serious addictions, as well as physical and mental health problems. Often times there are moments of anger and conflict that can erupt in camp, which can feel scary to people, especially those of us who don’t come from working class/street/hood backgrounds, but it’s important to understand and know that these moments of conflict often lead to resolution, even if it doesn’t look the same as it would in a more middle class or activist space. If for whatever reason people don’t feel they can be down here that’s totally legit: there’s lots of other ways to support the encampment and struggle in solidarity.
OccupyICE is demonstrating that the activist milieu’s tendency toward taking a social worker’s attitude toward unhoused folks —rather than a comradely and restorative one—is a serious political error. The fact is that unhoused people are keeping the movement alive. They are the movement right now. The well-intentioned but misguided activists (we include ourselves here) haven’t been able to see this: some even keep insisting that we have to shut down the camp that they rarely go to and have little investment in anymore since it’s problematic and uncontrollable. Word inside the camp is that campers are ready to move after we win to continue the struggle, and even expand it to include police and prison abolition and other issues facing the unhoused.
Comrades, can’t you see, we’ve helped to build something truly uncontrollable? Something proletarian, communal, autonomous and buck-wild? From the first march called by the alphabet soup of socialist orgs to this moment, everyone has put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed. It’s been an amazing, inspiring effort. But comrades, victory is so close. We can’t stop now!
While there is a political and tactical advantage to the unhoused people running and keeping the camp, we still need to support it logistically with donations/supplies and politically with marches, actions, and keeping up the pressure on Kenney. We can do the things we’re good at: banner drops, direct actions, street marches, teach-ins. If we don’t, it’s possible the internal pressures of the camp will prove too much for our mostly-new-to-organizing-comrades.
Let’s stop thinking of the unhoused people as anything other than our core comrades in this movement and this struggle. Do you know their names? Have you gone down to camp and talked to them about the political prospects of the situation? If you did you would see they don’t need our help, they need our solidarity! They need us beside them fighting! We started this current wave of struggle, we can’t leave them to finish it alone!
Many of us have become so used to losing that we don’t know how to pull this thing across the finish line right now, right as we’re about to win—but the folks in the camp are planning on winning. As such, they have a firmly established plan—logistically, politically, strategically—to close the camp and relocate it as soon as the PARS demand is won.
This will be a reset for the camp and for the movement, and if the city ends PARS Kenney can have the occupation off his lawn today (you reading this Kenney?!) But it all hangs in the balance right now, material support is visibly receding. People are donating less frequently, and most of the original convening organizations are sitting on their hands (and their piles of donated cash) waiting for something to happen.
But comrades, something is happening. Something big, something real. We’re very close to significantly damaging ICE’s ability to round people up in the city, and from there, to building something even bigger.
OccupyICE is creating a working model for how we can open an umbrella organizing space in Philly that breaks through the inaction caused by sectarian turf battles. We can win real victories for the movement while materially and politically supporting Black-led autonomous revolutionary organizing of the unhoused. By its very existence, OccupyICE is realigning the terrain in Philadelphia and pulling activists kicking and screaming into winning demands and sewing the seeds of an insurgent and revolutionary street culture. This is what revolutionary street organizing looks like!
Long live OccupyICE!
Shut down Berks!