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Jun 29, 20

Report on Attempted Occupation of Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia

On Saturday, June 27th, health-care workers and community members in Philadelphia put up barricades and attempted to occupy the entrance to the shuttered Hahnemann hospital.

by an autonomous jawn

For a brief moment on Saturday, nurses, patients and community members seized a shuttered hospital in Philadelphia and turned it over to the people to use as a clinic. Following a rally at the City Hall, a crowd of around 100 people marched north to the empty hospital tower, erected canopies, tables, and chairs, and began to attend to patients who had joined the march and were eager to receive care. They were the first people to be treated at the hospital since the pandemic began, during which the absentee owner kept its doors shut to the city in the hopes of forcing the city to pay a ransom.

Hahnemann Hospital stands in the center of the city, two blocks north of City Hall. Before it was closed in the summer of 2019 it predominantly treated Black poor and working class people of Philadelphia, with social service providers housed in the same tower as doctors and specialists. Its most recent owner, the banker turned heathcare investor Joel Freedman, had bought it only a year before, and when he determined it wasn’t profitable enough he filed for bankruptcy, laid off around 800 unionized nurses, and deprived the underserved population of Philadelphia of their primary source of care.

The occupation began with a rally that took place on the north face of city hall, across from the spot where one of the PPD cruisers famously burned during the riots weeks before — famous because a Philadelphia resident, Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, was arrested by the FBI supposedly on the basis of a photo posted to Instagram depicting her delivering a Molotov cocktail to the windshield. The burnt structures and gutted cruisers were quickly removed but the asphalt below the car is still scorched.

The rally was called by the Care Not Cops coalition of health workers, patients and community members which had formed a few weeks prior, moved by the examples set by the occupied Hilton in Minneapolis after the burning of the 3rd Precinct and by the James Talib Dean houseless people’s encampment up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia established two weeks before as well. They also took inspiration from the Black Panther Party and Young Lords’s moves toward community self-defense through direct provision of health care coupled with militant street activity. These models showed it is possible for the people to seize the means of care for ourselves back from capital and the State. And the quickly shifting character of the uprising, moving from riots to contacting city council members within a month, meant that it was time to act.

The George Floyd rebellion of late May and early June arrived in Philadelphia in the form of burning cop cars, widespread looting, skirmishes with police, stolen weapons, and mass mobilization. Unorganized Black teens were the protagonists. Its repressive turn was marked by tear gas, white vigilantism, FBI investigations and the transformation of riots into demands. Left organizations, Black-led or not, were the main actors here. The descent of the rebellion from exhilarating, liberatory action into the familiar street choreography of different left groupings was a barrier to taking creative advantage of the strategic situation, and appeared to have sapped much of the initiative the first weekends of revolt had produced. This action was an attempt to demonstrate that acting outside of organizational patterns allowed more incisive and bold movement, to resist the pacification and demobilization effect these protests often have, and to help drive imaginations toward bigger and better possibilities.

Speeches by members of ACT-UP Philly and the Black and Brown Workers Collective as well as local hospital workers drew connections between the anti-Black violence of the Philadelphia Police Department and the pathogenic society it upholds. The hospital had closed before the uprising or even the pandemic, after all, because all social existence is subordinate to profit. But even if it had still been in operation, it would have been part of a system which dispossesses Black power, destroys Black families through the family court system, harms Black disabled people, refuses care to Black trans people, and sequesters industrial toxins in Black neighborhoods. Sterling Brown from the BBWC sharpened this systemic critique by naming the individual city actors who carry it out: city manager Brian Abernathy, Mayor Jim Kenney, head of the office of homeless services Liz Hersh.

The crowd, now energized, took the streets. “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Fuck 12!,” and “What do we want? Care not cops! When do we want it? Now!,” joined chants of George Floyd, Remmie Falls and Breonna Taylor’s names. Marching against traffic up a side street, the people advanced up the loading ramp to the rear of the hospital while an organizer announced the plan was now to occupy the base of the building and set up a clinic for the people. While nurses busied themselves unfolding tables and laying out equipment, a rear contingent quickly set up barricades with wood pallets across the narrow street for protection against the few cops which had trailed the march.

Heavier equipment rolled in on a van which had been waiting for word around the corner. But as the nurses began to take out their blood pressure monitors and PPE, occupiers noticed the Philly SWAT team assembling on the street opposite the building. The advantage of using the base of the hospital was that it was accessible to the crowd for quick occupation without having to breach any doors or walls, but this also made it vulnerable to police attack. A debate broke out regarding the desirability of mounting a defense if the barricades didn’t keep the cops out. Some patients were determined to stay, while some nurses felt they couldn’t risk their license by getting arrested. The split in sentiment itself determined the outcome. Lacking the numbers and will to defend against police violence, the occupation packed itself up and moved on together, but not before treating the first patients at the Hahnemann site for months. There were, crucially, no arrests and no injuries from police violence, despite the intense escalation of barricaded streets and captured property. When we act together, we can care for each other and keep one another safe.

Though the occupation itself was extremely short-lived, the response it drew was indelible. Observers online and in the city immediately recognized the significance of taking over a hospital, and of the cops’ role as enforcers of a hated regime of property and social death. “[N]urses took over a shuttered hospital and open a free clinic. the police proceeded to threaten them with violence until they left in order to make sure the building stayed empty and unused,” summarized a Twitter user. The cops moved to protect the villainous hospital owner’s squatted property, guarding it against any use for the health of the people. And organizers were disappointed but not deterred. The first bold attempt at liberating the means for self-organizing community care was a strong start. It will certainly not be the last.

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