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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.)
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.”
Honkala looked at a little girl who gazed across the street at softball players warming up near the camp. “We will not give up!” she vowed, pointing to the child. “Every time they push us down another flight of stairs we got to gather strength from it and walk back up those stairs. Whether it’s pouring rain or it’s hot or we have to take down these tents again and again—175 times this weekend—we just have to hold on to each other because that’s all we have in the end—each other.”
A reporter asked if she would appear live on a California radio station during the march. “Gimme your number,” Honkala said resignedly. “I’ll put it on my arm and call you from jail.”