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The Waning Days of Camp Maroon

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eye on the news

The Waning Days of Camp Maroon

Philadelphia prepares to disassemble its own autonomous zone. July 7, 2020
The Social Order

Philadelphia’s own autonomous zone, Camp Maroon, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is a stone’s throw away from the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation. The zone came into existence shortly after the riots of late May and early June. News of tents being erected by homeless and Black Lives Matter activists along the Parkway paired Philadelphia with dozens of other tent-city municipalities. In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, for instance, 400 tents have lined the sidewalks for the last year and a half, intensifying a culture of drug abuse, filth, and criminality. Advocates have assailed plans to clear the tents as cruel. A tent city in front of Toronto’s City Hall is dominated by left-wing activists who have harassed and beaten reporters.

The politics and disorder of Philadelphia’s Camp Maroon are mild by Toronto or San Francisco standards, but the local Workers Revolutionary Collective—a grassroots organization of “organized working and oppressed people”—barred outreach workers from talking to tent-city residents to find them a place to live. The organizers objected to these efforts because no permanent housing was being offered Camp Maroon residents; any move to a temporary shelter or a hotel, in their view, merely constituted another “homeless sweep.”

“Our folks [outreach workers] have been shunned away or scooted away by the organizers of the event, of the protest,” Mayor Jim Kenney said of Camp Maroon. “While we recognize that it is a protest, we have beds available, we have services available . . . we would like to avail them of those services.” But advocates aren’t satisfied with services. “We want a community land trust that has low-income housing,” said Camp Maroon spokesperson Sterling Johnson. Occupiers also want “no-police zones” established for other tent cities that may appear. Camp Maroon has about 100 tents, though there were more before a group of occupiers split off and headed to North Philadelphia near the Housing Authority Headquarters.

In some ways, Camp Maroon mirrors the 2011 Occupy Philadelphia encampment, which had its own tent city in front of City Hall, along with organized protests on nearby Thomas Paine Plaza, where the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo stood until its removal last month. Occupy Philadelphia was engaged in protests having to do with economic inequality and corporate greed, but the tenor of the demands for far-reaching change resemble those heard today.

Camp Maroon is on notice that the city is preparing to move in to disassemble the structures. City managing director Brian Abernathy says that “conversations are ongoing with residents staying in tents there to reach a resolution.” Abernathy also expressed concerns about the health and safety of “those who are currently living there as well as the community.” A tentative date of July 15 has been set for the “disassemble time,” though Abernathy admits that the city may not hit that mark. “But we’ve made it clear that our expectation is that the encampment is removed this month.” Reports of a stabbing in Camp Maroon caused the city to speed up its negotiations with organizers. The move, clearly, must happen soon. The Philadelphia Housing Authority, in a rare display of frayed nerves, declared that the encampment on its property is “criminally trespassing” and blocking the way for the construction of a new supermarket, the first in 50 years, in the Sharswood neighborhood.

The social dynamic at Camp Maroon lacks the intensity that marked the looting and violence that followed the George Floyd protests. The area itself is a tightly constricted space filled with old and new Home Depot-style tents, the kind one might spot in any national park during family vacation months. The tents are positioned close to one another in long rows. Many look as if they’d seen better days, while others seem brand new.

Some huge tents house families. During an early-morning inspection of the site, I was shocked to find two towheaded boys standing beside their father as their mother made breakfast on a small outdoor grill. Near another tent, I spotted an older woman, an archetypal grandmother type, sitting on a lawn chair as if relaxing on her Port Richmond patio. A small, ragged pup tent stuck in the middle of the village looked like something out of a Civil War history book. A man who said he was a Camp Maroon resident approached me during my early morning tour of the site; I asked him what he was prepared to do once the city moves in. “We will just move to another place,” he said.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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