Filed under: Action, Critique, Housing, Northeast, Police
A critical discussion on active solidarity against sweeps of encampments in Philadelphia. Originally published on Philly Anti-Capitalist.
On Wednesday March 31 individuals showed up to a call to eviction defense at the 13/15th & Locust PATCO Station, where some Philadelphians have created an encampment for themselves.
People started offering their support as early as 7:30AM (Food Not Bombs). Followed by other autonomous individuals who spent the day in the terminal to combat and resist the city’s planned “service day.” “Service days” are long known to be the misleading term the city uses for sweeps. This is widely understood amongst people plugged into housing issues and people living outside or on public property.
Defenders spent the day in the terminal monitoring the police presence, getting to know the people in the encampment, arguing with city workers to maintain possession of unaccounted for items, and guarding people’s tents and belongings to prevent them from being deemed trash or getting ruined while workers power-washed the terminal. Workers unsurprisingly had a host of disrespectful things to say about the Philadelphians living in the terminal and their belongings.
Housing services showed up to suggest that residents leave the terminal for other housing options. Supporters remained present and directly over-heard city services proclaiming that we were there to use the residents for publicity. An interesting interpretation considering no one was photographing, recording or otherwise taking it upon themselves to tell residents what to do. Some supporters checked in with residents after their conversations with city workers. Heard were sentiments such as “they’re trying to get us to go into rapid rehousing but I’ve been through this before and it’s a bunch of bullshit, we’ll be out of there and back on the street by next week.”
At the end of the day, several occupied areas were successfully defended and were untouched by city workers, who originally told residents they would have to at least remove all of their belongings. Unhoused people often lose their belongings in sweeps because they are unable to watch their things all day, unable to move all their belongings themselves, or unsuccessful at resisting city workers who are intent on proclaiming that any personal items that aren’t on private property or on ‘your person’ are trash.
While the defense on the ground happened in solidarity, the discussion online surrounding it beforehand raised relevant issues, especially as moratoriums end and eviction defense becomes an increasingly pressing issue and way to show up against capitalism and for each other.
On March 29th and 30th a flyer started to circulate on anarchist, housing-support and eviction-defense networks (such as Signal and Telegram), as well as on social media. The simple B&W flyer stated “Block the eviction” / “Stop the city from clearing the encampment at 12/13th & Locust PATCO station” / “Meet at 10am — Defend at 11am” / and “Share widely.”
The “action words” included “Block,” “Stop,” “Meet,” and “Share.” The flyer did not mention black bloc, nor did it suggest defenders “throw down,” or “fight the police.” A discrepancy that makes the critical comments following the flyer’s appearance important to question, analyze and address.
Visually it referenced the accidental blockade of the Suez Canal by the Evergreen ship — which is popularly known to have been a temporary (and celebrated amongst anti-capitalists) disaster for commerce. It was relevant (albeit somewhat tangentially) in that eviction defense/illegal occupation of city-owned property is inherently threatening to capitalism and often involves literally blocking government workers from carrying out sweeps.
When the flyer was shared on the popular social media platform Instagram (IG), Individuals and activists added commentary by way of clarifying “re-posts” and comments about the flyer. For example:
“Hey it isn’t an eviction, it is a sanitation event. Please don’t show up to fight the police. The department of Housing Services have promised that people’s belongings won’t be thrown away as long as their owner is with them.”
“Honestly delete this post (re: flyer/call to eviction defense). We’re worried about people showing up in black bloc to fight the police for an eviction that isn’t happening”
“Clarity: it seems that folks are *not* being evicted tomorrow. However encampment residents are asking that people are there ONLY to make sure they are not displaced. They have been told they will not be during tomorrow’s routine cleaning.
DO NOT ANTAGONIZE ANY POLICE. Showing up and being SUPPORT is fine, but anything else goes against the graces for brutality from the police. So show up, be kind to the encampment workers, protect them and their things if you HAVE to, and that’s it.
Do not put people’s lives in danger with your own agenda.”
“So so important that folks not antagonize or escalate on their own impetus with houseless comrades in the crossfire.”
These statements, while not necessarily wrong or made in bad faith, are representative of misunderstandings, as well as misrepresentations of direct action and those who carry it out.
The intentions of the private networks who participate in direct action are frequently critiqued, often in bad faith, because the government, mainstream media and liberal agenda encourages a disdain towards them. This is tactical on the governments part, as these individuals often make a life-style out of resisting and combating government oppression. The goal here is not to point fingers and declare which statements were from whom, but to discuss why the commentary was premature, misguided and harmful.
People claiming that the city does not mean to harm individuals living in encampments and squats — on any occasion — is, first of all, mislead. Secondly they are directly supporting the city government in being free to terrorize the housing-insecure population uninhibited. Even if an eviction is not happening at all, people showing up en masse to demonstrate their support and willingness to fight evictions in general deters the city from dishing out eviction notices. When it comes to encampments or people living on public property, the best eviction defense is building relationships, sharing resources, and offering aid on a regular basis. This lets the government know who is in solidarity with them. This may include community aid, street art, combative action towards oppressive government programs/officials and much more.
However none of those things can stop evictions if we do not make a practice of showing up on the day and time that they’re rumored to happen AND demonstrate our willingness to not take the city government’s orders. Showing up to “support” only goes so far. At some point what matters most is who is prepared to keep standing and keep guarding belongings when city workers demand we back down. This is why we take issue with the cautionary language contained in the comments.
Eviction defense is anti-gov, anti-cap and anti-property. It ultimately involves combative/non-compliant action verses cooperative/lawful support. Participating in and defending encampments, squats, and even non-gov-approved mutual aid is conflictual, disobedient, and risky. It predicates a power struggle with the government and city services. Showing up to an eviction defense requires a willingness to not cooperate with the government and to possibly accrue legal penalties. It also potentially creates grounds for police to justify targeting, taking note of, and repressing you.
You are supporting people in resisting laws, zoning and city operations. For some, this warrants “bloc-ing up” and for others it might not. This can depend on countless factors, some of which might be if individuals are involved in other illegal activities and anti-state efforts, if they are already on the police’s radar or facing police repression, or if they are inherently targeted by police.
Eviction defense is about more than preventing people from losing their possessions and having to find alternate shelter. It’s a relevant fighting ground for undermining capitalism, state power and its entities – most notably, private and government-owned property, both being extensions of colonization.
Encampments are already illegal because they overwhelmingly exist on public property owned by city government. Encampments exist in the first place because the city hoards property, fuels gentrification and refuses to allow anyone to make shelter out of the countless vacant homes capable of providing it. The reason the city doesn’t allow these homes to be used is because all government systems are invested in capitalism.
Capitalism works by placing monetary value on the things people need to survive — like housing, food, and healthcare — making them unavailable to those without adequate capital. Capitalism is maintained by creating consequences like homelessness, hunger, loss of autonomy or death for those who do not acquire and maintain the level of capital needed to acquire those things. As such, the city government, including the OHS has an obligation to make sure people are unable to “live for free” by occupying public spaces instead of paying for private property or surrendering their autonomy to be granted a spot in a shelter.
People made many anticipatory and presumptuous claims about those behind the flyer and the call for eviction defense. Critical responses to the flyer were based on a fear of black bloc, escalation, conflictuality, as well as the private networks that organize and plan direct actions. Publicly encouraging a narrow and uninformed understanding of black bloc is a fantastic way to bolster police repression. It alienates willing and active individuals who may already be on the police’s radar and need to obscure their identities to keep themselves safe in settings monitored by police.
A clear misunderstanding of what conflictual and combative tactics are for was also evident. The people in our networks seek to destroy systems of oppressive. Sometimes this does involve literal destruction of property but that’s just one of many tactics in the arsenal. Eviction defense is a defensive action that may or may not involve direct confrontation with the police. The goal (which was clearly communicated in the flyer) was to prevent eviction and protect the people in danger of being evicted. It is with a lack of understanding and solidarity that what occurred in response was an expectation for people to throw down, start a “street fight” with cops, and harm individuals in need of defense.
Lastly, a common thread in the critiques was for individuals to not show up “with their own agenda,” or act “on their own impetus.” Believing that people should not show up to eviction defense as part of their own struggle is disempowering. People commonly show up to actions because they are personally interested in seeing something through. This is usually because it is a part of their personal agenda for resistance against larger systems.
It is short sighted to think eviction defense and housing justice only concern those who are currently unhoused in a specific situation. Property is violence because the state owns and controls land and punishes people for trying to survive by making the things they need inaccessible through capital. Anyone with an interest in resisting or combating capitalism’s grip on our lives has a personal interest and agenda when it comes to eviction defense. Defending someone’s home, when their residency is illegal is joining them in their resistance. Defense isn’t a passive action. It is patronizing to not recognize that people living in encampments, squats and on public property are already involved in resistance, regardless of if it is only for themselves or part of a larger agenda against oppressive systems.
Photo: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash