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The Unexpected Miracle, The Miracle in Peril

Last night, a desperate call was put into the Mayor’s Kenney’s office.

“There is something important happening at the camp. Something no one expected, and something the Mayor needs to understand. The unhoused activists, they are starting to blossom and thrive. There is something about what they are doing there that is helping them in ways no one predicted…”

The Occupy ICE PHL encampment began as a non-violent civil disobedience action intended to protest ICE. It’s first incarnation was set up outside the ICE administrative building in Philadelphia, and was staffed mostly by the more traditional activist groups. After the camp was forcibly dismantled by the police, it resettled outside City Hall where it worked to pressure Mayor Kenney to end the city’s participation in the PARS system.

It was at this new location that the demographics of the camp began to shift. The camp began to welcome anyone willing to respect the community and also worked to feed anyone who came to the camp. This began to attract a number of the unhoused from around the city. As the camp progressed through its next 3 weeks of sustained protest, many of the more traditional protesters began to be pulled away due to duties to work, families, school, etc. As a result, the unhoused community members who had been drawn to the camp began to step up into the leadership roles to maintain the movement. It was after this change that the miracle began to manifest.

Lives began to change while in the camp. A number of reports began to emerge of how many of the unhoused, who had been initially showing signs of mental illness, behavioral outbursts, and substance abuse, started to improve. People who started off as being disruptive started taking up roles to support the community, substance use reduced, and some people began to come out of their shells in beautiful ways.

“See that guy over there?” the activist manning the kitchen pointed, “When he first came to the camp he did not speak. He just sat there for a few days. And then one morning he picked up the guitar and sang us a song he composed on his own as gift for the camp.”

People are inherently social creatures. We all need to be part of something bigger. When we can’t be contributing members to the larger society, we feel a unique stress known as “Role Strain,” which can take a traumatic toll on a person’s psyche and self-esteem. The impact of the role strain can often result in depression, aggressive behaviors, substance abuse, and in severe cases, the stress can trigger psychosis. It has been well established that homelessness can actually cause or aggravate mental illness. Most of the explanations given for this focus on the stresses that occur when you face the threat of death every day due to lack of food, shelter, medical care, and the threat of violence. But what we are seeing at the camp is that there is another factor that most analysis has missed. The unhoused are also severely stressed due to the role strain of not being able to be a contributing part of society.

The miracle that occurred at the camp happened because the unhoused were not just given food and a safer place to sleep, but a chance to give back as well. By welcoming them into the leadership and giving them a chance to participate in a cause, they were no longer just charity recipients but full partners in a larger community. This is important because it reveals an important unseen social need that gets lost as people focus on only filling the more apparent physical needs.

At the time of the writing of this article the city has started to move in to dismantle the camp. The city claimed that they were going to send in housing and mental health workers to help the unhoused as part of this action. The reason for last night’s desperate call was an attempt to try to get Mayor Kenney to see that those services are not enough. Just taking care of the physical needs will not be enough, and looking at the individual component of the mental health still neglects what we have seen about this need for the larger social connection. Taking away that camp without a plan to provide some other way for the unhoused to contribute to a larger cause is stealing from these activists an important source of psychological sustenance that we are now learning to be just as important as any other physical need.

 

Occupy ICE Philadelphia – Week 1 7/2/18-7/8/18

On Monday, July 2nd, 2018, Occupy ICE PHL began their first week of non-violent civil disobedience. Joining in a mass action that has sprung up from New York to Portland, the brave activists set up a camp outside the ICE building in Philadelphia in opposition to ICE and its human rights violating policies. The camp was set up on Monday, and was met with threats from DHS, ICE, and Philly PD.

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(Image courtesy of Philly Socialists)

The next day, support started to come in from all over the state in the form of people joining in, material resources, and donated funds. On Tuesday, the non-violent activists remained despite intimidation, and the camp was raided, with DHS, ICE, and Philly PD damaging personal property, injuring activists, and arresting about 2 dozen. All those arrested were released that day, and the encampment showed it would persist.

Wednesday was July 4th, and the non-violent activists at the Occupy ICE PHL camp truly embodied the spirit behind Independence Day. We have all been told that this day was the commemoration of our nation’s birth, born out of the spirit of protest, dedicated to opposing tyranny, with the goal of building a nation where all people are equal and free. Occupy ICE PHL came together in belief in those ideals and the recognition that we are still far from realizing them. They joined together on this day in fellowship to continue to push forward the changes to make the unmet ideals of this day a reality.

On Thursday, Occupy ICE PHL met their hardest day to date in their non-violent civil disobedience action. They announced a press conference for 3:00 pm. As the time for the press conference approached, Philly PD started to try to find reasons to give warnings based on where supplies were placed and activists were standing. Legal observers on site worked to help the activists respond. When the Occupy ICE PHL was within their legal rights, those rights were reinforced, and when the cited issues were justified, the activists complied quickly. At approximately 1:15 pm, DHS, ICE, and Philly PD moved in to the camp to break it up, destroying property, and violently arresting activists. Occupy ICE PHL still persisted, the arrested activists were quickly released, and the press conference happened as planned.

On Friday, Occupy ICE PHL moved their non-violent disobedience action to City Hall itself, where it currently stands. Despite some agitators trying to test the activists, they were able to grow the camp without incident. Support continues to come in for those who wish to participate, and a children’s area has even been established to support parents who come down to participate in the non-violent civil disobedience.

But as this camp grows, help is still very much needed.

How you can help:

1) Show up to City Hall and join the occupation. The more people present at this non-violent civil disobedience action, the safer everyone is. If you have any sway with the larger protest groups that worked the #womensmarch, #marchforourlives, #endfamilyseparation, #sciencemarch, etc., please get them to use their platforms to get more people to grow this camp and make more noise. If you can pull thousands in and fill the area, that will make the impact we need.

2) Bring supplies to help the occupiers. Their needs list can be found in the event description here: https://www.facebook.com/events/215509789282139/

3) If you can’t bring the physical goods, Occupy ICE PHL is also accepting donations via Venmo at the ID of @bird-poet

4) When you go, bring your phones and prepare to take videos. Philly We Rise has been trying to put together a civilian journalism corps, and they can help you coordinate your efforts to document the occupation. https://www.facebook.com/phillywerise/ If you do this, please respect any requests for anonymity among the activists. If the police move in while you are there, and you record acts of police brutality, rather than post it on social media, please go to the legal observer present among the activists, or get the video to the Up Against the Law legal collective https://www.facebook.com/UpAgainstTheLaw

5) Call Mayor Kenny (215-686-2181) and hold him to his pledges to make Philadelphia a sanctuary city. Specifically request for him to end the city’s cooperation with the PARS system and not renew the city’s contract with ICE when it expires next month on 8/31/18. He claims to oppose ICE. He claims that he supports the protesters. But right now these are just words, and we need him to follow them up with real solid action.

#ShutDownBerks
#OccupyICEPHL
#OccupyICE
#EndPARS
#AbolishICE

Speaking for others: When a right becomes a duty

The first amendment has become a battleground in this era of protest and dissent. There is a lot of focus being put on showing the world that we can speak, that we can get our voices heard, and that we will not be silenced.

There has arisen, however, an unintended consequence in the way we have pursued our right to speech. In our rush to prove we can speak, we have inadvertently helped to contribute to the silencing of people who need to be heard the most.

“You don’t know how privileged you are to be able to afford to protest,” is a common issue pointed out by Sam Marks, a local activist leader in Philadelphia. When he talks about this, he goes on to explain how many of the people who are the most disenfranchised can’t attend rallies, protests, or other mass events because they financially can’t afford to do so. The people who are hurting the most in this nation are also the ones living paycheck to paycheck and are lucky if they can pay their bills every month. They are often assigned to weekend or evening shifts, the times when most activism takes on visible forms. For them, going to an event would require taking off from a work shift, and forces a choice between protesting and eating.

“I wish I could have gone yesterday, but I had to work. There is another one in Doylestown today, but again, I have to work,” I was told by the lady behind the coffee shop this morning as I wrote this and we discussed recent protests.

In addition to the economic barriers to speech, a number of other factors many people forget about can also play huge roles in silencing those who should be heard. Transgender people are targeted for assault and murder, are at risk to lose their jobs, and suffer other brutal forms of oppression and discrimination. Showing up to a rally and disclosing their transgender status in public can create real dangers for them. People of color are often met with a stronger police presence when they assemble for peaceful protest. And if you are protesting immigration policies in this time of aggressive ICE raids, fears of being swept up from the stage are very realistic.

The mistake we are unknowingly making is that our push to stand up and speak for ourselves, we have assumed that everyone else can as well, and we have forgotten those who can’t. Those are often the voices that need to be hard the most.

The controversy that arose during the 2018 Women’s March in Philadelphia arose because of this issue. There was a decision to include a heavy police presence with guarded entry points to the rally where bags would be checked. From the viewpoint of people who have had a mostly positive relationship with police, this seemed like a reasonable idea. What was forgotten was that many of the women who are being hit the hardest by the current administration, and have been hit the hardest even before the current administration, are the ones who have had traumatic relationships with the police. This caused a huge outcry from those who were afraid that this safe space for women would become another opportunity for them to be harassed. And despite a last-minute policy reversal, the damage was already done, and many of the people who provided such strong voices last year, representatives from the transgender community, women of color, the Red Umbrella Alliance, etc. did not show either because of formal boycott, or out of personal concern of the repetition of the abuses they faced in life occurring when they crossed a checkpoint.

So, what can we do?

The first thing we must do is change the narrative of speech being about out first amendment rights and make it about out personal duty to take care of others. Every right, after all, comes with it a responsibility to use it properly. Without this moral responsibility, that right can degrade to an infantile entitlement focusing on self-interest, which is the problem that we see in the groups we often protest against. To counter this, we must make certain that our speech is more than just about us. We must adopt the duty to make sure we are speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But even before that, before we speak, we must make sure we are taking every step to help others to speak. A mistake commonly made by groups that do want to do the right thing and speak for the right people, but we forgot to make sure we really know the issues. We made this mistake when we started out as well. At our transgender rights rally, there was decision made to include one of our leadership in the list of speakers, focusing on his status as a doctor of psychology and overlooking his status as a cisgender male. When the problem of that decision was realized, there was a rush to make sure the speech was as informed in the subtleties of the transgender issues as could be, but the agreement was made that next time we spoke for a community, we would work to identify experts of those communities to represent the issues and speak for themselves. In addition, we must make sure to provide for the safety of the more vulnerable people as well. In one of the early protest actions in Philadelphia, there was a fear by a woman of color about the police being there, and she worried about being targeted for harassment by the police. One commenter on the thread gave her this promise, “I will be there and use my white privilege to protect you.”

Finally, we must make the promise that before we speak, we will listen. We must acknowledge that when it comes to the problems of the world, we each approach the problem from the perspective of our life experiences, and this perspective is as much limiting as it is informing. The phrase “check your privilege” is often uttered in social conversations, and many people wrongly associate this this with an attack. But the truth is, the phrase is meant to just remind you of the limits of your understanding that come from the fact your experience of life is not the same as the others, and what has been true for your experience may not be true for others. The request made is not asking you to invalidate your own thoughts and views, it is a warning that if you proceed down the path of speech you are going, you are risking invalidating the thoughts and views of the people who are in need. But if you heed that warning, or even better, spend some time just in circles with the intent of listening without responding, then when the time for you to speak comes, you will be better informed by the multiple perspectives of the issues we face.


So this is the challenge we are offering to you. When the time to speak comes, don’t just speak because you have the right to, but be intentional about your words. Don’t just speak for yourself, but remember that there are those who are being blocked from their right. Make every effort to give them a voice, whether that is directly by giving them the tools the to speak for themselves, or by learning enough about the issues of those silenced so that those issues can be represented in our speech.

If we can do this, we can be a stronger force for facing the many social issues in the world. We will have the power to speak effectively on the issues that really matter. But if we fail in this duty, if we forget those who cannot speak for themselves, we risk splitting the activism community into two ineffective halves. The first half is loud and proud, but unaware of the larger issues in play, which  can get placated by the easiest concessions so that it fades out easily. The second half will be rooted in the larger problems that attack our most vulnerable members of society, but it will have too small a voice to protect and aid those that need it the most.

We are now the Equity Coalition

equity coalition

Approximately two months ago, we began the process to change the name of our group to The Equity Coalition. We are the same group that has stood by you all at protests and rallies, labored with you on projects, and worked with you towards a more just society, but we have decided to change our name, and wish to present the rationale for that change.

The choice to change from Equality to Equity was inspired by this comic :
(Image source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/94/b9/cf/94b9cff6e57f8bff9db127a2114ce404.jpg)

Within that image we saw the artist make a very powerful statement about both our society and the common mistake people make when pursuing justice. Though it is true that in an ideal and  just society all people would have equal access to rights,  resources, and opportunities, the nature of the unjust world as it is means that prematurely pushing the ethic of equality can do more to perpetuate injustice than fight it.

The most direct cause of this comes from the fact that different groups can be more at risk than others and therefore their needs can be greater. The overall suicide rate in the US, for instance, is 13.26 per 100,000 people, but the suicide rated for transgender individuals is 32%-50%. Where all suicide deserves attention, and there needs to be prevention efforts aimed at all groups, the increased rates among trans individuals necessitates extra attention, and a strict ethic of equality in application of time and resources would cost lives. When inequality exists, equity is the more effective solution.

 In addition, there are times when adherence to equality can serve to promote inequality. When people claim that they don’t see race, for instance, the intent is to extol some high ideal of equality, but the effect is that they end up ignoring and invalidating the inequalities and injustice that actually exist in the current world. People who refuse to check their privilege in discussions of inequalities do so because they want their voices to be on an equal ground with those affected by the inequality, but the result is they often end up hijacking the discussion, putting their needs above the group they are claiming to want to help. More disturbing is when the concept of equality has been directly co-opted with the intent of perpetuating an injustice that serves them, such as when the cry of “All lives matter” is used to silence the very real and very important message of “Black Lives Matter.”

It is for these reasons we felt that “The Equity Coalition” better reflects who we are. We understand that those of greatest risk need to have the most attention. We understand that privilege is real, represented in varying levels among our varying members, and that we will need to check it to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. We understand that justice cannot be achieved by forcing equal responses onto a world where people are not allowed to start from a place of equality, but rather can only truly be achieved when people are given according to their need while accepting that those needs will differ.