They blocked traffic. They held signs. They spoke of dead friends.
But the march for safe injection sites outside City Hall on Wednesday was encouraging — simply because advocates were bringing the fight downtown.
Of course, the politicians managed to hide anyway.
With 1,217 people dead from overdoses here in 2017, the highest rate of any major city, not a single City Council member bothered to show his or her face — if not in support of safe injection sites, at least in support of finding other measures to keep people alive.
And that's how it is in Council chambers. The crisis killing Philadelphians at a rate of four times the murder toll has somehow become untouchable, and our legislators are pulling disappearing acts any time anyone says the magic words "safe injection site."
Here's the thing — the city believes it can open a safe injection site with or without Council.
So, most representatives have done the usual: taken no position and slowed momentum with at worst silence or at best, a few hearings that devolved into health officials explaining to Council members the nuts and bolts of the crisis.
In private, advocates said Wednesday, some Council members are comfortable offering tepid support — or at least the classic Philadelphia definition of it: We won't support you publicly or do anything to help you, but maybe we won't cut you off at the knees.
There are exceptions. Helen Gym was the first Council member to express support for safe-injection sites — although she hasn't made it a signature issue. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose Kensington district has been devastated by successive drug crises for decades, has been left holding the ball while Bobby Henon and Mark Squilla, whose districts border hers, have mostly gotten away with treating the opioid crisis as someone else's problem.
I went looking for them through the halls Wednesday while protesters shut down traffic on Market Street. Henon wasn't around. Neither was Cindy Bass, the head of Council's health committee. The protesters sent a funeral wreath to Council President Darrell L. Clarke's office: "Mourning demands action," the card read.
Jane Roh, Clarke's chief of staff, said her boss is in a "wait-and-see" mode as the city considers legal liability and issues of equity — how to help people incarcerated and otherwise affected by previous drug epidemics who weren't afforded safe injection spaces.
These are valid and important concerns — but Council could bring those issues to the forefront of the conversation instead of shying from it.
Squilla poked his head out the window and said he didn't know about the protest taking place below. He was off to a lunch date at Capital Grille. For his part, he at least met with advocates earlier this summer, but he was adamant: "I promised them nothing."
Also to his credit, Squilla was part of a push to clear the encampments in Kensington and get people into treatment and shelter. But good luck figuring out where he stands on safe injection sites. In the space of a six-minute conversation, he told me, variously, that he was "open to looking," "no," and that if I could give him "a means to put it together, then I would support it." Thanks for clearing that up, Councilman.
Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district has been hardest hit, is one of the few pols who's spent political capital to help people with addiction and save lives in her district. She has a record of supporting harm-reduction measures, such as the Kensington needle exchange Prevention Point, when other politicians would have zoned them out. And she, more than anyone else, has held the city's feet to the fire about clearing heroin encampments.
But she's drawn a line on safe injection sites, even though more than 200 people died last year in her district. And she, more than any Council member, was the target of protesters' ire Wednesday. They chanted, "If Maria says no, she's got to go." She was not around.
Meanwhile, two or three Philadelphians a day, of every race and color, are dying.