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More than two dozen activists were detained on Tuesday after attempting to occupy the Municipal Services Building with last-minute demands for city leaders to drastically reduce the police department’s budget.
A group of protesters entered the lobby just after 3 p.m. and began a demonstration in front of the government building’s central elevators, unfurling a large banner that read “Defund the Police.”
Police entered the building about 20 minutes after the demonstration began, many wielding batons and donning “counter terrorism” vests. One officer appeared to try to address the group but was drowned out by chanting. Some organizers reported hearing orders to disperse, but other members of the group did not.
Law enforcement then moved to detain protesters one by one for blocking the building’s elevators. People continued to chant as they were cuffed with zip ties and led out of the building.
Inquirer reporter Samantha Melamed was also briefly detained during the demonstration— despite clearly identifying herself as a member of the press. Asked why, PPD Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson at first answered that he was unsure but said he would correct the issue. After further questioning, Wilson left to check on the reporter’s status and Melamed was released from custody.
The detainment appears to contradict an earlier order from Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw instructing officers to allow reporters to do their jobs “unless extenuating circumstances exist.” As police approach her, Melamed repeatedly says, “I’m a reporter. I’m a reporter.”
“I just told a police officer wielding a baton that I’m a reporter,” she tweeted after her release. “He told me to ‘put this on Twitter.’ Then he tightly handcuffed me with zip ties and he and another one mocked me while dragging me backward down two flights of stairs along with few dozen others arrested in MSB.”
A police department spokesperson told Billy Penn an internal affairs investigation has been launched into the incident. Mayor Jim Kenney later tweeted he was “disturbed” by the detainment and said “it may violate the law and [PPD] policy.” City police have detained or arrested at least five members of the press since protests erupted across the city late last month.
Twenty-seven protesters were arrested in total, just as a coordinated protest march arrived at nearby City Hall, having marched up Broad Street from South Philadelphia. They were transferred to a South Philadelphia police precinct and issued citations for failure to disperse. All were released by early Tuesday evening.
The protesters are asking Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to roll back $120 million from the police department’s annual budget — a slash that would take the police force back to its funding levels to what is was when Kenney took office in 2016. The requests were outlined in a letter to Managing Director Brian Abernathy, whose office is located in MSB.
Activists said they were fed up with what they described as hollow gestures from Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Abernathy — who has come under fire in years past — serves as the mayor’s liaison with the police department, overseeing major policy decisions and operations.
“The spotlight is shining the least on him,” said organizer Samantha Rise, 32. “Brian Abernathy time and again has been the voice in the mayor’s ear who has been calling to increase funding for police.”
While they build on demands that have been made for weeks, these actions may be too late to effect change in the current budget.
The city’s fiscal year closes at the end of June, and lawmakers have been scrambling to finalize a budget that addresses some of the gaping financial wounds wrought by the coronavirus pandemic — and other systemic inequities that exist in Philadelphia. City Council will vote on the proposed budget on Thursday.
Council advanced a package last week that strikes the mayor’s initially proposed $19 million increase for the department, and diverts an additional $14 million for crossing guards and public safety enforcement officers to the managing director’s office. According to the legislative body’s schedule, there is no room to make additional changes ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Activists say the budget shuffling does not amount to a substantive decrease in police funding, and are calling for more money to be redirected to human services.
Philadelphia is now on its fifth week of protests over police brutality and institutional racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.