ACT UP protest ends in police violence

ACT UP members at an August 3 press conference. (Photo by Michele Zipkin.)

As members of ACT UP Philadelphia were about to hold their regular housing protest on July 27 outside of Mayor Kenney’s Old City home, Philadelphia police officers removed protesters from the scene for allegedly blocking a private driveway. The incident culminated in the hospitalization of four ACT UP members, two of whom were arrested for assaulting a police officer. One officer received medical attention for a broken finger. Officers from the Civil Affairs Unit (CAU), Traffic Unit and Narcotics Strike Force were on the scene. 

Since May 25, 2021, members of ACT UP and other local social justice organizations have been assembling for a peaceful, bimonthly protest outside of Mayor Kenney’s residence, called “Tuesdays with Kenney.”

At an Aug. 3 press conference, ACT UP member Max Ray-Riek read a statement on behalf of the group, which said in part: “ACT UP Philadelphia planned to hold a peaceful protest on July 27th. Our goal was to come together as a community, share a meal, and speak out as unhoused people, people living with HIV, people with disabilities, and others directly affected by Mayor Kenney’s failures to meet his own goals for affordable housing.”  

According to a report issued by the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), when an ACT UP protester crossed onto a private driveway at the July 27 protest, a CAU Sergeant “placed his hands on the individual’s back to escort them off the property.” The protester then struck the police officer, the report said.   

ACT UP organizer Jamaal Henderson, who was present when the incident occured, disputed the report’s claims.

“The officer did not just ‘place’ his hands on one person’s back, he pushed her hard,” Henderson said in an email. 

The PPD report says that when the ACT UP protester ran from the CAU Sergeant and rejoined their fellow protesters, the Sergeant and other CAU officers caught up with them in the crowd and tried to arrest them. At that point, the protester allegedly bit a CAU officer on the arm. Police arrested another protester who started throwing punches and hit the Sergeant. Both ACT UP members who were arrested were charged with assaulting police officers.  

“It’s my understanding that Civil Affairs is supposed to be looking out for protestors and their safety,” said ACT UP member Adrienne Standley. “They’re kind of a go-between between the police and the protestors.” She added that interactions between ACT UP and CAU are usually peaceful. 

City of Philadelphia Deputy Communications Director Kevin Lessard said in an email that the City has “no further comment beyond the PPD statement of events. The Mayor learned of the incident after it was over and was not onsite during the protest activity.”

At the press conference, Ray-Riek added that the DA is currently reviewing body-cam footage of the July 27 events. Additionally, Ray-Riek said on behalf of the group that in their report, the PPD misgendered the second person that they arrested and used her dead name. Ray-Riek asked the press to refer to that person as Ms. Hughes and to both people arrested as she or they. Police also misidentified one of the people arrested as white, but that person is a Latinx person of color, Ray-Riek added. 

“Police enacting violence on unarmed Philadelphia AIDS activists peacefully protesting a homeless crisis does not inspire increasing police budgets nor trust,” ACT UP organizer José de Marco said in an email. De Marco has previously said that housing solutions are methods of HIV prevention.  

This is not the first time that Philadelphia police have violently intervened in an ACT UP protest. At the press conference, Henderson referred to a 1991 protest organized by ACT UP and other social justice organizations, where police officers attacked protesters. At the time, PGN reported that at the 1991 protest outside of the Bellevue Hotel, where President Bush was attending a fundraiser, police beat ACT UP organizers with night sticks and black jacks as protesters tried to stage a “die-in.” Eight people were arrested on several charges, including disorderly conduct and rioting. 

Following the 1991 incident, ACT UP members and several other organizations sued the City of Philadelphia and individual police officers for violation of their first amendment rights, and won. The suit included an injunction against the police, barring them from intervening in ACT UP demonstrations for 10 years, according to de Marco.   

At the Aug. 3 press conference, ACT UP members reiterated their demands of the City for safer, more affordable housing, which include immediately halting all evictions, including those of encampments and homeless shelters; creating a paid oversight board consisting of shelter residents, people getting OHS support for permanent housing, and unhoused individuals; ensuring that trauma-informed and housing-first policies are instituted at every provider funded by the city; immediately reopening the COVID hotels, applying for FEMA reimbursements and using the money to produce housing-first, trauma-informed shelters that are inclusive of people of all genders, families and disability situations.

“Philadelphia is bucking national trends,” a City spokesperson said in an email, in a general response to ACT UP’s ongoing demands. “Nationally, chronic and unsheltered homelessness are up; in Philly, they are down – as is family homelessness. Philadelphia continues to have the lowest number of street homelessness of any major American city. Amid unprecedented pressures from a widening gap between the rich and the poor, lack of affordable housing, and the opioid crisis, Philadelphia continues to remain ahead of the curve in providing effective and compassionate solutions to homelessness.”

At the press conference, ACT UP members shared written statements from organizers who had planned to speak at the July 27 protest, including ADAPT, the peaceful activist group fighting for disability rights, as well as Moses Santana, an ACT UP member from Kensington. They also played an audio recording by Karen Harvey, head of the Philadelphia Rent Control Coalition. 

“Systematic, government sanctioned gentrification has turned my neighborhood, and many other neighborhoods, from Black and Brown, to less Black and Brown and more white,” Harvey said in the audio recording. “It is apparent that [Mayor Kenney] and the developers did not think ahead to where the residents…of the newly gentrified neighborhoods were going to live.”