With Pence in Philly, thousands flood Rittenhouse Square to protest separating families at U.S. border

Hosted by eight different local activist groups, the rally was peaceful and without incident.

4-year-old Ethan Schiller, at a June 2018 protest in Rittenhouse Square

4-year-old Ethan Schiller, at a June 2018 protest in Rittenhouse Square

Rachel Wisniewski
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Instead of kids playing in Rittenhouse Square on Tuesday evening, a collection of empty children’s shoes stretched across the park’s stone pavings.

Meant to symbolize the children being held in facilities along U.S. border, they were brought by several of the 2,000 or so people who gathered at the Center City park to protest the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy that has led to the separation of young immigrant kids from their families.

Protestors directed their dismay and anger toward Vice President Mike Pence, who was dining at the Rittenhouse Hotel at a Republican Governors Association fundraiser. Also among invitees to the $50k-a-plate soirée was Scott Wagner, the Republican nominee for Pa. governor.

Just after 5 p.m., representatives from Refuse Fascism stood on a platform — which had only been secured hours before, thanks to a generous donor — and played an audio clip of the detained children wailing inside one of these centers to set the tone for the rest of the protest.

The detention of these children, separated from their parents, has drawn condemnation from various elected officials and leaders and sparked outrage worldwide.

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MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA / Billy Penn

Philly Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement that “the destructive practice is unacceptable and needs to end now.” A spokesperson for Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf told Billy Penn that “he opposes state resources being used to further President Trump’s policy of separating young children from their parents.”

Tuesday night’s protest in Philadelphia, which counted eight different local activist groups as hosts, came together in less than three days.

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MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA / Billy Penn

“Pence in PHL: Stop Separating Families! Trump/Pence Must Go!,” as the action was titled on Facebook, was organized specifically to denounce:

  1. Separating immigrant children from their parents at the border and subsequently placing them in detention centers.
  2. ICE from “endangering, beating and shooting” immigrants (per the Facebook event page).
  3. Denying asylum to refugees.

The protest’s Facebook event page garnered the attention of several thousands of Philadelphians: 5.5K had marked themselves as “interested”  before the event began.

The organizers — Youth Caucus of America, Refuse Fascism, Philly Up, Deep Green Philly, Sanctuary Advocate Coalition, Juntos and Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates — where able to whip up speakers in short notice. Those who gave speeches included representatives from the organizing groups, as well as from the New Sanctuary Movement, Philadelphia Children’s March, Public Citizens for Children and Youth and many more.

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MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA / Billy Penn

The protest itself was labeled as a “family-friendly” event, giving other youngsters the chance to stand up for their peers.

“I’m horrified at the shameless fascism in our country,” said rally attendee Ana Rubio. “The detachment of children from their parents, the lying about it, the fact that we don’t know where the girls or the babies are. My great uncle was killed fighting Nazis. To have this happen here, it’s terrifying.”

Reese Revak, who had brought his violin along, echoed Rubio’s sentiments. “I’m disturbed by this immigration policy on separating families that have accelerated under Trump and Pence,” he said. “It’s time to take action, we can’t fall asleep. We can’t get used to it. We have to continue fighting against this.”

These thoughts aligned with much of what speakers said as they addressed the assembled crowed.

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MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA / Billy Penn

“I’ll tell you this, there have been other times like this in history where children have been taken from their parents,” said Sunsara Taylor, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s local chapter, from the makeshift stage.

“They did that in Auschwitz. They did that to the slaves on the auction block…. This is what America is doing to our people, and I don’t care if you are white, if you are Black, if you are Latino or if you were born on this soil or on any corner of the earth, if you have a heart, if you have decency, you look at those children and say ‘Those are our children.'”

Jasmine Rivera, community organizer for the Shut Down Berks Coalition, reminded the audience that, for immigrants who have had their loved ones stripped away from them by ICE, the sights and sounds from these detention centers are particularly triggering.

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MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA / Billy Penn

Though the heat was fiercely beating down on the crowd,  attendees remained as spirited and supportive as they had been on the event page’s comment threads.

On Facebook, people had posted Bible verses about loving foreigners (and not separating them from their children), proposals for a post-protest dance party, information about Reactive Attachment Disorder and a plethora of articles from news outlets detailing the treatment of minors in these immigrant youth detention centers.

Along with suggestions to make calls to both Pennsylvania and Department of Justice officials, there were also pleas on the page to write negative reviews on the Rittenhouse Hotel.

Heidi Zhao and Andy Dinsmore had both noted how angry were on the event page, then channeled their frustration into active participation throughout the three-hour, 5 to 8 p.m.  event.

Their chants were among the hundreds that shouted with rage and with disgust. There were almost as many roars of fury as there were roars of support for the detained children and their families.

The #KeepFamiliesTogether movement in Philadelphia continues with a “Families Belong Together” rally is scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 30, at noon in front of the ICE Regional Office on 220 Chestnut St.