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Protesters stage sit-in in Mayor Jim Kenney’s office during Philadelphia budget negotiations

Progressives are hoping outside pressure will help the members who align with their movement to gain ground in the negotiations over how to reshape the $5.2 billion budget plan the mayor proposed.

Mayor Jim Kenney's chief of staff Jim Engler, left, listens as protesters with Reclaim Philadelphia stage a sit-in in the mayor's office.
Mayor Jim Kenney's chief of staff Jim Engler, left, listens as protesters with Reclaim Philadelphia stage a sit-in in the mayor's office.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

As Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council members tried Tuesday to reach a deal on next year’s budget, and as residents implored Council to “defund the police” or reconsider some tax cuts, a small group of sign-toting activists went one step further: They rushed past security at City Hall and staged a sit-in in the mayor’s vacant office.

They didn’t last long, and no one was arrested. But they delivered their demands for increased funding for community-led antiviolence programs and eviction prevention, and for Kenney to drop his proposal to cut the wage and business taxes, to the mayor’s chief of staff.

The demonstration came as Kenney and City Council members negotiated behind closed doors over the next budget, which takes effect July 1. Council on Tuesday listened to hours of public comment, including from urbanists criticizing Majority Leader Cherelle Parker’s proposed parking tax cut and residents calling for the city to redirect money from the Philadelphia Police Department to community groups.

“Year after year after year, we’re told there’s not money for the things that our communities need,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an organizer with the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, which planned the protest. “The slap in the face of tax cuts is the last straw in this budget. Where are your priorities, Mayor?”

Progressives are hoping outside pressure will help them gain ground in the negotiations over the $5.2 billion spending plan the mayor proposed in April. Council President Darrell L. Clarke originally scheduled the budget proposal for a vote in committee Tuesday, but Kenney and lawmakers have not yet agreed on the tax-cut proposals, the extent to which the city funds antiviolence measures, and how much of its $1.4 billion in federal stimulus aid the city should spend next year.

“I want to ask Reclaim to stay the course, to stand out here and hold this building accountable,” Councilmember Helen Gym said at a small rally before the sit-in. “The people in here may have a vote, but yours is the vote that counts outside. That voice will transform whatever happens in here.”

» READ MORE: Philly leaders negotiate anti-violence funding, federal aid, and tax cuts as budget deadline nears

The event was billed in a media invitation as having the “potential for an arrestable escalation.”

Gym, who took office in 2016, was often the lone progressive voice on Council in her first term and is a seasoned practitioner of rallying outside voices to help make her case.

She was one of 13 councilmembers who signed a letter last weekend calling for $100 million in antiviolence funding instead of Kenney’s proposed $34 million.

Gym’s spokesperson, Greg Windle, said the councilmember wasn’t aware the protesters planned a sit-in at the mayor’s office.

The group appeared to have rushed past security at an entrance to City Hall, which is closed to the public until next month, before occupying the waiting room of the mayor’s suite. Kenney at the time was in a meeting elsewhere in the building, spokesperson Deana Gamble said.

Jim Engler, the mayor’s chief of staff, spoke briefly with the demonstrators, saying the mayor understands their concerns and will work to advance them in budget negotiations.

“We’re fully supportive of individuals expressing their First Amendment rights and advocating for causes they support,” Engler said in a statement after the protest. “We look forward to working with Council to finalize the budget in an amicable and collaborative fashion.”

The protesters left after less than an hour when a sheriff’s deputy told them they could be charged with trespassing, according to a legal observer who accompanied the protesters.

“They were asked to leave (by a sheriff’s deputy) because they entered the building without going through the metal detectors and the building is still closed to the public,” Gamble said in a statement. “They left without incident.”

If Council follows its regular procedures, lawmakers and Kenney have until June 17 to reach an agreement before the current budget expires at the end of the month.