Monday Morning Coming Down

Inside the Kensington Homeless Demonstrations in Philadelphia

Bushville, Philadelphia—On a scorching afternoon last Friday, a wraithlike little girl skipped through a clump of grass in a foul-smelling, garbage-strewn tract of urban meadow in the 1500 block of Randolph Street in North Philadelphia. She pinched her nose and stopped at a line of playmates who complained about the odor of dead rats as they waited their turn at a porto potty. A few yards from the latrine, women and men unloaded wooden pallets, lawn mowers, cots, water coolers, and road-beaten Michelins from a fleet of Ryder trucks. Others strained to complete landscaping and work on shanties fashioned out of cast-iron frames and black plastic tarpaulin before nightfall.

About 60 people huddled in one large hovel, singing a kind of beggar's opera in their makeshift human-rights theater. "Well, I went down to the rich man's house/And I took back what he stole from me," went the plaintive refrain. "I took back my dignity/I took back my humanity/And now he's under my feet/Under my feet/Under my feet/Ain't no system gonna walk all over me. . . . "

This was life on the second day in Bushville. The tent city, reminiscent of the Depression-era "Hoovervilles" and named for Texas governor George W. Bush, was set up by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a homeless-advocacy group. Its purpose: to draw attention to government policies toward the poor and embarrass the presidential hopeful whose wife, Laura, was to appear before the Republican National Convention on Monday night.

As Bushville's leaders settled in for an eight-day vigil, they attempted to answer questions about Seattle-style organized chaos and freestyle rage. Although the city had refused to grant the group a permit, it still planned a march against homelessness on Monday from City Hall to the First Union Center, the site of the convention. But on this day, no one bragged about the large-scale civil disobedience and the plan to block entrances to the convention center during the march. Initially, the city refused a parade permit, saying that thousands of demonstrators would cause unmanageable traffic disruptions. Then police said they would allow demonstrators to march on the sidewalk along Broad Street.

"We didn't back down," a Kensington lawyer boasted late last week. "The group said it's gonna go forward. And now [the city's] just trying to negotiate. Their first position was, 'Never on Broad Street. You can't have Broad Street on that day.' Now the position is, 'Okay, we see you're taking Broad Street, you're not backing down. Can we get you to do it on the sidewalk?' So we applied for a permit and we were turned down."

Organizers vowed that the city had not heard the last of their campaign. Four days before the march, they had no permit to camp in the lot they occupied, and they expected to be arrested. Grace Grasty, an activist from Massachusetts, listened apprehensively as a security team leader tried to convince her and other women that their children would not be snatched from them if they were arrested, as Philadelphia authorities had threatened.

"My main concern is that I don't want anyone to come here and take my children away from me," said Grasty, looking around for her seven-, eight-, and 13-year-old "babies," who had accompanied her for the march. "My fear is that they're gonna make a big stink out of it. The government is so afraid of us going out there to march, and in order to stop us, and scare us like they usually try to do, they are gonna try to say, 'You're neglecting your kids.' " Grasty seemed to relax after someone revealed that college students had volunteered to remove the children from the demonstration "if things get real rough."

On Friday Evening, Cheri Honkala, founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, sat in the midst of a group of activists, pressing the argument that housing, food, jobs, and welfare are the most significant issues facing poor people. Honkala should know: the nationally recognized advocate, some say, is the soul of the antipoverty movement. Still, Honkala says that what Philadelphia politicians allegedly put her through these past months in advance of the Republican convention almost broke her spirit.

She began by recalling last week's sudden raid by city inspectors and police on "Spiral Q," a site where volunteer artists had labored eight hours a day crafting protest signs. Authorities confiscated the placards. "We had to go through a major battle to get the mayor to reopen the place [and] get our art back," Honkala said. "You know the signs that are all around here," she added, pointing to the polemic-studded broadsides stacked at the entrance to Bushville. "Signs like '35 Million People Are in Poverty' are pretty serious, aren't they?"

Honkala also claimed that four months ago, in an attempt to crush the Kensington movement, Mayor John Street, a Democrat who is black, offered her the job of overseeing the city's homeless programs. "Is it because our mayor thought that I would do a great job of facilitating that program? No! They did not want me to be involved in the human rights campaign, organizing this thing." (The mayor's office did not respond to Voice phone calls.)

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