The Second Encampment: An Interview with an Activist

Image description: in front of City Hall at night, the Occupy ICE encampment. Two banners read “#ABOLISHICE” and “#SHUTDOWNBERKS”. Another sign says “End Stop and Frisk.” Several tents shelter camp participants.

An interview with Brian from the Liberation Project

By James Yeun; photo by Liberation Project

James:  Can you say a little bit about yourself?

Brian: I’m affiliated with the Liberation Project. I started my involvement with the first encampment at the ICE office at 8th and Cherry where I was there for the march and the occupation. I was one of the folks who was arrested on the second day and I was part of the Coalition that moved the occupation to City Hall. I was most active at that occupation and I was there pretty consistently for the first 10 days. I would come and go for bursts for the rest of the occupation, but was there virtually everyday. I was mainly there to provide support: coordinate things with the press and help  make sure that everything that needed to happen was happening, in terms of making sure food was set up right, the camp was tidy, and literature was being distributed.

James:  Would you describe what the Liberation Project is?

Brian: Liberation Project is mainly a group that tries to support marginalized people and connect the other Leftist groups around the city with whatever that’s going on and make sure communication is clear, supporting whatever it is that’s already going on in the city. Just an extra layer of support.

James: After the bike dozing, what were the factors that led people to make a second occupation happen at City Hall?

Brian: Part of the reason for it was that people seemed to be under the impression that we weren’t finished with our work yet, but we were having less confidence that continuing that work  at the ICE office was the right way to do that. There were 36 arrests over two days and after the bike dozing happened we wanted to figure out what was the best way to keep moving the agenda forward of ending PARS (Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System), shutting down Berks County Family Detention Center, and abolishing ICE. A coalition of us decided that the best way to do that was to move it to City Hall where we could bring our concerns directly to city government, occupying a space that might not necessarily be obstructing anything but has a physical, central space in the city with more visibility as well as putting a lot more pressure on the city government directly to do something.

James: What is your understanding of the role of the General Assembly when the first occupation was transitioning into the second?

Brian: I was there for a portion of it. I personally felt uncomfortable sharing much at that General Assembly because you had all these people talking about next steps and we’re completely surrounded by cops, many of whom had just bike dozed, arrested, and assaulted us. We were speaking on a megaphone and everything we were talking about was completely audible to people who are oppressing us. I didn’t really feel that much was going to be accomplished there, so I didn’t stay for the duration of the meeting. But I felt—and there were other people around who felt—that it would be good to relocate to City Hall, so we basically started doing it.

James: To summarize, in your view the General Assembly wasn’t an important aspect of whether or not we were moving to City Hall. Rather comrades had decided that this was strategically the right thing to do and the General Assembly was just a way for people to communicate that with other people.

Brian: That’s what I feel that it basically served as. We were communicating to a larger group of people, so that more people would know that the occupation would happen.

As far as I know, there wasn’t an actual decision made by that General Assembly to relocate to City Hall. I believe that the core organizers at that General Assembly announced an intention to “de-camp” and there weren’t concrete next steps decided upon. I do believe that there was at least one person who formally submitted a proposal at that General Assembly to move to City Hall, so that’s how that idea floated around. There were other people who had that same idea and were dissementing that idea through other means.  We [those who supported occupying City Hall] took it upon ourselves to just do it rather than waiting for this General Assembly that was being monitored by the police!

James: One of the things, in the second occupation, that really captivated people were some of the direct actions. Do you mind talking about who was taking the lead and the what kind of actions  were taking place?

Brian: There were a lot of actions, planned or spontaneous, that happened at that City Hall camp, which I think helped make it as magical and effective as I thought it was. We had some great solidarity actions where folks from the Philly Light Brigade came. They made a light demonstration that spelled out “OCCUPY ICE PHL,” which was really cool. We had people from the Carnival De Resistance come and perform. We had some people from the West Philly Orchestra come and give a spontaneous concert. There were a lot of really awesome things that kind of just happened magically from having all these different people come together and say, “Hey! I really support this cause. What is something that I can do?”

James: That dovetails into another question I have. What were the general differences between the first and second camp?

Brian: With the first camp, there was a lot of palatable tension just by nature of what we were doing there and who was watching and confronting us. We were right there directly interfering with the operations of the ICE office and effectively shutting it down; this came with the consequence of having a lot of consistent police presence. Even on the first day, there were violent scuffles with the cops where they were trying to drive a police SUV through the crowd and people were trying to block the car from going further; me and a few other people were literally being thrown into the streets by cops. That set the tone where there was a lot of tension and unease.

What was different about the City Hall occupation was because of the police brutality at the first encampment and having the blessing from the Mayor, there wasn’t as much of an obvious police presence, which put a lot of people at ease. It allowed us to develop more of an infrastructure. After seeing our interactions between the organizers and the cops at Cherry St., where they would say, “You need to take these umbrellas down! You need to take down these tents!” and we would comply and they’d still raid us, it informed us how to develop a stronger infrastructure at City Hall, which allowed us to have these elaborate tarp canopy situations that weren’t technically tents because there weren’t walls. We were able to establish more structure that way.

What was different was that it was primarily being facilitated and organized by unaffiliated activists. People who weren’t really a part of an org, who don’t have this history or organizational clout and don’t have different thoughts about the politics of other political groups. It was people who had seen what had happened, or were there, at the first occupation; people who wanted to get involved and didn’t exactly have that organizational history.

I feel that the dynamic was very different. That organizational presence wasn’t quite at the forefront as I feel like it was at the first one. Decisions were made a bit differently. Things were very explicitly non-hierarchical and leaderless, which really served to our benefit where there wasn’t this concrete leadership structure that people had to constantly go through. People would say, “Hey! I think that this thing needs to get done” and a lot of people would agree and then people would take steps to make that thing happen. That’s just how decisions were made and how things were run. I think that was really productive. It helped set a new tone for the second camp compared to the first one.

The more unaffiliated people by virtue of witnessing police brutality on the Internet or the news as it was broadcasted from the first encampment mobilized them to get involved. The folks that were more unaffiliated just showed up and put their bodies on the line and talked to folks that were there and asked what needed to be done and did it.

For the unhoused comrades, I am hesitant to treat as a separate entity from the other folks who were there because we we were very much in their space. City Hall has always had a lot of people who were unhoused. Those of us who do have houses wanted to be mindful about the fact that we were very much in their space. A lot of the people that I worked with who were unhoused were very quick to understand why we were there and support our message anyway that we could. They did all the same work and contributed all the same amount of energy if not more. I guess another difference was being a constant physical presence at the camp, which was definitely needed to keep it sustained to make sure always that those numbers were there. That was incredibly helpful and remains so with the third encampment as well.

James: How did the second camp transition to the third camp?

Brian: Mayor Kenney made that announcement around 2pm that he would end the PARS agreement and that was on July 27th. With that announcement, he also said that the camp needed to be evicted by 2pm the next day, which was very frustrating. Since that camp started, we made it very clear if the PARS agreement was ended we would make steps to decamp. We didn’t say that we would decamp immediately in a few hours because that would be a reckless thing to do especially since we were working with unhoused folks and wouldn’t want to throw people under the bus. We were like “Oh shit! We need to figure out what to do and get all this stuff out of here in 24-hours.” Amazingly enough there were so many people that were able to come out and help de-camp and clean everything up.

As we were torn between celebrating the victory and figuring out next steps, there  were a good amount of folks that felt there was still work to be done and that it wouldn’t be fair to stop the encampment because of the amount of unhoused folk that had been holding it down and helping to carry it across the finish line. There were quite a few folks who were saying that they were burnt out and needed some time to rest, or didn’t have the energy to sustain another occupation. Since there was quite a vocal group of folks that  were really passionate about starting another camp right away, the other folks decided that we would support them however we could with whatever resources we gathered and whatever physical support that we could provide which is why it happened immediately the next day.

James: What were the forces really calling for a third encampment?

Brian: A combination of the unhoused folks that were leading the charge at the City Hall encampment and the comrades who they had built community with, who were either from other organizations or some of the unaffiliated folks that wanted to support that encampment.

James: Is there anything else that you want to tell our readers?

Brian: With the second encampment, it was a combination of the more established Leftists orgs in the city and a big group of unaffiliated, concerned citizens and unhoused comrades who either already had a history of activism (some of whom were part of the Occupy Philly movement) and some folks who weren’t as aware of this political climate or our specific concerns with ICE or the PARS agreement, but through talking with us and sharing space with us became as radicalized and as passionate as we are. They are in community with us like any other comrade.

That was a really beautiful outcome of this. I really saw it as real legit street and working-class organizing in action and it really was a people’s movement. While there was this coalition of different organizations that  did a lot of intense heavy work to get that first encampment set up and provide support in some ways to the second encampment, that second encampment was really an organic, people-led movement and the people power really came through to put enough pressure on the Mayor to end the PARS agreement.

. . .

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