Monday Morning Coming Down

Inside the Kensington Homeless Demonstrations in Philadelphia

On Thursday, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union had tried to set up Bushville in an abandoned lot next to the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, in an area known as Germantown. As Honkala and her group hunkered down, they were approached by a group of Muslims who said they had purchased the property from the city. "I just felt they had somebody politically moving on them," Honkala said. "They said that they needed the property for parking the next morning, for prayer, and that [they expected] about 500 cars to park on that lot." She said she "pleaded" with Muslims. "Cried. You name it. They said that they had to go pray, and that they would get back to me once they were done praying. They went in and they prayed and came out and said that we had to move. Didn't even give us till the next morning. I was absolutely devastated. Generally, people who make decisions on a spiritual basis are very embracing of the poor."

Honkala suspected that her political enemies were pulling strings. But who? "Most of the men couldn't look me in the eye," she contended. "I was just saying, 'Please, can we have till tomorrow morning? Can we have a day? We're tired; its gonna start pouring rain. Let these babies and these mothers stay here.' We'd just unloaded an entire truck and we were beginning to get people in from around the country. We didn't have any money to put people up anywhere."

The Muslims were unmoved. In a statement, the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society said it asked the Kensington Welfare Rights Union to get off land they insist they own partly because the activists never contacted them about their plans. In addition, they said, the occupation would have disrupted Friday prayer. In the statement, the Muslims said: "The lot where the Union was planning to camp for several days is an area not suitable for such purposes; specifically, no sanitation exists. The safety of the participants in this camp cannot be guaranteed. Al-Aqsa Islamic Society is committed to our neighbors, and we were concerned that the KWRU was going to turn this into a media circus with noise and other disturbance." Honkala said she was "saddened" by the response, yet "strengthened by the fact that people, no matter how tired they were, had worked all night long to reconstruct all of this stuff. That's the thing that gave me real inspiration."

Across the street from the mosque is Restaurante Seniorial Poncero, which opened about a month ago. Tony, one of the owners, who is Puerto Rican, said he would have allowed the squatters to stay. "They're human beings," he affirmed. Asked if the Muslims objected to his restaurant, which sells chuletas (pork chops), he responded angrily, "They can't object to us! We're licensed! Everything is legal." Having the squatters and the accompanying press as customers would have put Tony's restaurant on the map. "Exactly!" he lamented. "It surely would have. But it's something that you have to accept."

After the activists were booted from the lot, they moved to a location on nearby Randolph Street. "People have been coming from all over the neighborhood," Honkala noted. "And the people who were right across the street—who saw us being evicted from the lot—came over here, bringing water and donations and stuff for us."

Getting back to the march, Honkala reflected, "Almost every day, somebody from the police department has been meeting with us, telling us that they would give us the option to walk on the sidewalk, but then they use different people to indirectly threaten us by saying that they'll mess with our encampment if we don't decide to walk on the sidewalk." She said she rebuffed the cops and everyone else, advising them that she and her followers would risk arrest.

"We think we have an opportunity, for once—for one moment in time—to talk to 15,000 reporters who could believe that people feel strongly enough about an issue that they're willing to walk up Broad Street and let the whole world know that poverty exists in this country." Her voice breaking, she paused, as if not wanting to imagine what would happen to the poor people of Bushville after the Republicans leave Philadelphia. "We know that after the convention is over, poor people are gonna go back to being 'Disappeared in America', " she warned. "America is not talking about the majority of us, who have not benefited from this economic boom."

Honkala also responded to Grace Grasty's fears about her children being on the frontline. "We're gonna be swarmed," Honkala pointed out. "They're gonna ask, 'Aren't you putting your children in danger?' What we've been saying is, 'No! The danger is the fact that our children have to grow up in a country that doesn't give a damn if they live in the streets. Doesn't give a damn if they have health care, and doesn't give a damn if they eat! We love our children so much that we are going to march.' "

As for the Philadelphia cops, Honkala advised the demonstrators not to trust them. Echoing Gertrude Stein, her voice rose as she declared, "I was always taught that a cop is a cop is a cop. We will appreciate it if you would not speak with the officers."

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