Demonstrators Occupy ICE Building in Philadelphia Amid Police Brutality

All over the United States, groups of socialists, anarchists, communists, and other leftists are camping outside ICE offices to prevent agents and their detainees from entering and exiting the buildings.

[Photo: Activists rally in Philedelphia to protest Immigration Customs and Enforcement]
Hundreds of protestors in Philadelphia on Monday night set up camp with tents, tarps, lawn chairs, and beach umbrellas. Danielle Corcione

Dozens of demonstrators were arrested in Philadelphia this week in an action that blocked the entrance to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, where nonviolent protesters experienced police brutality from officers breaking up the demonstration.

Due to sweeping immigration arrests, the Philadelphia ICE office made more “at-large” arrests of undocumented people without criminal convictions in 2017 than any other ICE office in the United States, according to ProPublica. Philadelphia is a so-called sanctuary city, meaning it doesn’t honor ICE requests to hold an immigrant so the agency might take her into custody. Even so, ICE officers from the Philadelphia regional office have conducted warrantless searches, trespassed, and racially profiled in their pursuit of immigrants, ProPublica reported.

All over the United States, groups of socialists, anarchists, communists, and other leftists are camping outside ICE offices to prevent ICE agents and their detainees from entering and exiting the buildings. In the past two weeks, encampments have been organized in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Wichita, Kansas, to stop immigrant incarceration and deportations as part of the growing movement to abolish ICE. The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues its “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has taken thousands of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

While Philadelphia Police Department officers have been present with their own barricades at the demonstrators’ camp, there were also counterterrorism units and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents present.

The Philadelphia action follows #WomenDisobey, a sit-in for immigrant rights on Capitol Hill last week, and the national effort known as #FamiliesBelongTogether last weekend. 

The action in Philadelphia had three demands: first, abolishing ICE, which would mean the total dismantling and elimination of the agency established in the post-9/11 Homeland Security Act. While this position was once deemed radical, it has sparked a larger movement that has drawn support from some Democrats, such as U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Second, the demonstrators demanded the Berks County Residential Center, located in Leesport, Pennsylvania, about 65 miles outside Philadelphia, be shut down. This effort was started by the Shut Down Berks Coalition. According to the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition, Berks is one of three family detention centers where entire families, including infants as young as two weeks old, are detained behind bars. In August 2015, a federal court ruled that youth detention in this setting was illegal, yet Berks continues to operate.

The third demand is for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (D) to end the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS) agreement. According to Philly.com, PARS is “a real-time, computer database of arrests, operated by the City of Philadelphia and, via contract, shared with federal Immigration Customs and Enforcement.” The agreement expires on August 31 and is up for renewal.

Hundreds of protestors in Philadelphia on Monday night set up camp with tents, tarps, lawn chairs, and beach umbrellas. They organized a space for volunteer medics and a people’s kitchen, providing free first aid and food to those at the camp. They received so many supplies they had to start rejecting and moving the supplies to an off-site location.

“From the beginning of the camp, from its inception, the tactic that we agreed upon was like strict non-violence,” a member of Philly Socialists who asked to remain anonymous told Rewire.News. “I was really proud because when it came time to do that [tactic], everyone did it and no one broke. Everyone stuck to the tactic.”

As demonstrators built up camp, they faced resistance from law enforcement. Authorities flip-flopped on their decision to allow demonstrators to use tents.

The first round of arrests came around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday. 

“When the police moved in, we were in a line across the doors [of the ICE building] and the police were going down the line, getting people one by one,” said the Philly Socialists member, who was linking arms with other demonstrators when they were arrested Tuesday afternoon. This same person has a medical condition called thoracic outlet syndrome—“if I have my left arm behind my back for too long, I start to lose feeling and mobility in my arm,” they explained—that officers, they said, were insensitive to.

“What the cops did was push themselves into us until the bikes were right in front of us,” the anonymous member of Philly Socialists said. “We were not pushing. I was up in the front, against the bikes, and all of a sudden it turned into, like, a mosh pit where everyone in the front was getting pushed from behind. I turned behind me and I saw that police were in the crowd, yanking people apart. I saw a cop whip his baton out. We were just standing there, linked arms, and because we were getting pushed from behind from police breaking into us and throwing us apart, the cops were telling us we were pushing into them, as if we had any control. And I was yelling, ‘We’re getting pushed from behind, we’re getting pushed from behind, we can’t help it, we have no control over this.’ And they just started yanking people away. Keep in mind that day that people were getting pushed down into concrete during the middle of the heat wave, into black concrete that was really, really hot. So their faces were getting burnt—dehydrated, sweaty, gross.”

The Philly Socialists member was detained and brought to the local police precinct, blocks away, in a van with five other demonstrators. When transferred into a cell, they recall other demonstrators getting searched and some groped, but none—to their knowledge—were stripped or had their bodily cavities searched. One officer, they recall, refused to search a demonstrator because “she’s fucking disgusting, she has armpit hair.”

Another demonstrator who was arrested, Philadelphia resident Kenny Wittwer, said, “Bike cops just trampled right through us, hit me with a bike, stomped on my back,” knocking off Wittwer’s glasses. 

“I’m being calmly escorted to the wagon,” Wittwer explained. “Another cop comes up to me from my right side, grabs my neck, starts choking me and he says, ‘Don’t cry now, pussy,’ as he looks me in the eyes. There was about, like, 20 or so [other] cops right there witnessing it who were laughing and smiling as it was happening. Then they threw me into the van. I hit my head on the top of the van on the way in. I had a lot of marks on my wrists from the handcuffs that were too tight.”

All but one demonstrator was released within a few hours with minor $50 citations for failure to disperse, but many demonstrators say they have no intention of paying the fine. Organizers created a bail fund on Venmo; they collected so many donations that they had to create another account by the third day of the camp.

The action was organized by a coalition of local activists and organizers including Philly Socialists, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Reclaim Philadelphia, the Liberation Project, the Green Party of Philadelphia, Socialist Alternative, Montgomery County Socialists, International Marxist Tendency, and POWER Interfaith. But members of many other organizations—including Juntos and the New Sanctuary Movement—as well as unaffiliated advocates showed up.

Another round of arrests started Thursday afternoon outside the ICE office.

“They started to shove the bikes into the tent when we were discussing,” said Hope Beckary, a member of animal rights organization Liberation Philadelphia. “I was discussing with the group about the demands that they were making at the front of the encampment. I linked arms with a few other people but before that happened, I was trying to de-escalate obviously to the best of my ability. I was extremely emotional and it was scary, but they were throwing my friends and just being very, very violent trying to terrorize the people.”

Beckary said the officer used excessive force. She said she kept repeating, “I am not resisting,” to the officer handcuffing her, who she said “was very obviously just trying to fuck my arm up.”

Following an open assembly with group discussions on Thursday night, many protestors left while others rebuilt camp outside of City Hall. Those who moved to City Hall are focusing on the third demand to end the PARS agreement, and hope to maintain a physical presence within sight of city government, including Mayor Kenney, who works in the building every day.