Philadelphia police abruptly raided and destroyed the "Occupy ICE" encampment set up by protesters outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Center City on Thursday afternoon.
"Stay calm! Stay calm!" a protester shouted as police used bicycles to push through the encampment and knock down the protesters' tents and canopies, which had been set up in the area since Monday evening as part of a national movement calling for the abolition of ICE. Local demonstrators also have called for the closure of the federal detention center in Berks County and an end to local collaboration with federal immigration officials.
The raid occurred about 1 p.m. Thursday, roughly 10 minutes after police spoke with protesters at the front of the camp on Eighth Street and asked them to move their water coolers and other supplies off the sidewalk. The protesters began to comply, and moments later, police then asked them to also clear a space in front of the federal building. While activist Aine Fox, a representative with the Up Against the Law Legal Collective, was attempting to clarify that request with police, other officers entered the camp through the back and began pushing through the area with bicycles.
A police spokesperson, Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, later said in an interview that protesters were given "numerous warnings" and opportunities to clear the affected areas before police took action to remove the structures because the encampment had been blocking "ingress and egress" to the building, which contains offices other than ICE. Some structures had been blocking a door, Kinebrew said, while others were blocking one of the bays to the building.
He declined to respond to allegations that police moved on the camp while some protesters were discussing how to respond, saying simply: "I do know warnings were given."
Earlier on Thursday, around 7 a.m., protesters were asked to clear an entrance to the building's front door by officials from the Department of Homeland Security and they complied, said Anlin Wang of the Democratic Socialists of America and Reclaim Philly.
Supporters of the cause said they were shocked by the raid, given Mayor Kenney's previous support of their efforts and Philadelphia's status as a "sanctuary city."
In a statement from the mayor's office, spokesperson Deana Gamble said: "Protesters have been notified repeatedly that they are free to remain and protest at the premises, as long as they do not block the building egress or set up permanent encampments. Despite these repeated warnings today and throughout the week, a group of protesters ignored these instructions. No one, regardless of political view, is permitted to set up an encampment, and the mayor cannot make exceptions simply because he agrees with the protesters."
It was the second time the police have charged into the Occupy ICE encampment — the first was on Tuesday, when 29 people were arrested and some officers threw away protesters' possessions — but this was the first time officials took down the encampment, leaving demonstrators shaken and furious.
On Thursday, seven protesters were cited for failure to disperse and released, police said.
"There's a lot of crying," said Ezra Kirk, 22, of New Jersey. "People put their heart and soul into this. Not just the camp, but the work."
Police organized a front line, standing with bikes in the middle of the camp on Cherry Street, and continued to push forward until they reached Eighth Street, blocking everyone from where the encampment had previously sat. Protesters screamed expletives and called the officers "fascist pigs."
Most officers stayed stone-faced, but one, who carried a nightstick under his arm, winked and made kissing noises at a woman who was filming and accusing police by name of "snatching black and brown bodies."
Many filmed the altercation — protesters with their iPhones and police with an audiovisual crew.
An hour after the raid, officers cleared out the encampment, helping municipal workers throw tents and supplies into multiple garbage trucks.
Roughly 100 officers — on bikes, horses, and foot — were at the scene, and many remained long after the clearing.
Enav Emmanuel, a member of Philly Socialists, said organizers were regrouping Thursday and working to plan next steps.
Kinebrew, the police spokesperson, said that the Police Department's aim was to protect the rights of protesters but that Thursday's actions were necessary because the protest site had swelled to limit access to the building.
"Our motive and our mission is not to stop protesting," he said.
As to criticisms that the Police Department's actions were overly aggressive, Kinebrew said no police or protesters were injured during the altercation and said: "We took the action we thought was necessary to open up the area."
He said that police would "take it as it comes" in determining how or whether protesters would be allowed to return to the site but that protesters and possessions "can't block entrances" to buildings.
Kenney has declared Philadelphia a "sanctuary city," meaning it limits its cooperation with ICE. The mayor has said he agrees with the protesters. But Thursday's raid left some wondering: Why, then, did police clear the camp?
"The mayor strongly supports the right of individuals to protest, and he shares their frustrations with ICE," Kenney spokesperson Gamble said in the statement. "ICE's aggressive tactics, their separation of families, their targeting of law abiding immigrants are cruel."
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But, the statement continued: "While he agrees with the premise of the protest, he cannot make exceptions to the law and allow individuals to create a threat to public safety by blocking access to a building and setting up permanent encampments."