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Philly’s Law-and-Order Policy Worsens Overdose Crisis and Hinders Harm Reduction

The crisis in the Kensington neighborhood is the result of enforced deprivation and neglect of the people by the state.

The city of Philadelphia and the federal government are using police and prisons as tools to disappear social problems by disappearing people.

On February 1, the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) Special Response Team, the Pennsylvania State Police, the attorney general’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation department and Homeland Security jointly conducted a militarized raid in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

The law enforcement quaternity, heavily armed and dressed in military fatigues, appeared from countless police vans and armored trucks, and arrested and disappeared allegedly dozens of unhoused people who are suspected by police of using drugs, according to eyewitnesses and organizers cross-checking with the 24th precinct. Organizers and community members on the ground are working to locate those people, who were forcibly arrested and transported to unknown jails and treatment centers or deposited onto streets in other areas.

This unsettling raid continues the city’s steady escalation of aggressive law enforcement tactics deployed since the start of Mayor Cherelle Parker’s tenure. PPD has used tactics like “jumpouts” — a paramilitary practice in which plainclothes cops in unmarked vans spontaneously jump out without identifying themselves to intimidate and arrest people during neighborhood sweeps that deliberately target the unhoused, drug users and participants in the Kensington Street economy.

In addition, encampments that once held dozens of people have been dismantled and emptied of residents whose health and location are currently unknown. Billy Ray Boyer — a member of the Philly-based, radical harm reduction organization SOL Collective and Critical Resistance, notes that police have widened their dragnet, arresting more and more people on paraphernalia charges. Such arrests explicitly violate the negotiated protections granted through the Syringe Services Program at Prevention Point, which prohibits the arrest of anyone presenting a card verifying receipt of their syringes from the program. Boyer described the escalation of police action in Kensington as “atomic bad.”

The Philadelphia Coalition for Dignity in Treatment released a statement that described the police action as “a blatantly inhumane escalation of police violence against drug users, who already face high levels of criminalization and violence at the hand of the state.… People who use drugs are our neighbors, friends, loved ones, and constituents. They are not political pawns you can use to win elections, or surplus populations you can disappear into prisons or violent treatment facilities.” It is an escalation of this exact type that we expect to continue over future weeks and months.

How Did We Get Here?

Kensington, a neighborhood in the lower northeast section of Philadelphia, is the ancestral home of Lenape people and was violently settled by English merchants throughout the early to mid-18th century. Following the Civil War, Kensington began to industrialize, and white immigrants moved there in pursuit of factory jobs. This industrial community underwent a major structural adjustment in the 1960s when corporations relocated their factories to the Sunbelt, leaving many workers from Kensington unemployed. In ensuing years, Black Americans from the South and migrants from the Caribbean moved to Kensington in large numbers. In response, white people initiated white flight, and some who remained carried out a series of campaigns of anti-Black and anti-immigrant terrorism against their neighbors of color as the government abdicated its responsibility to protect residents. Illicit drug economies replaced outsourced industrial jobs, and overdose, poverty, and other crises bloomed in the absence of any viable state welfare programs.

By the late 1980s, Kensington was regularly being acknowledged by city officials and media not as a community in dire need of jobs and resources but as the home to Philadelphia’s crack epidemic. What we witnessed in Kensington on February 1 is not new. In 1988, Police Commissioner John Timoney established Operation Sunrise, a zero-tolerance policy promising to break up the drug market in Kensington. That policy’s brutal consequences inspired Operation Safe Streets in 2002, led by Deputy Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, which focused on “hot spot policing.” Both of those strategies ultimately failed in terms of addressing the root causes of crises in Kensington, and from 2010-2012, new Commissioner Charles Ramsey decided to take a seemingly less brutal, “community policing” approach as law enforcement shifted policing responsibility to residents themselves, pitting community members against each other.

Over the last few years, various city administrations have announced their own strategies for Kensington. Mayor Parker’s new agenda continues the brutal legacy. During her scant campaigning, Mayor Parker ran on a “tough-on-crime,” “law-and-order” platform. Her “100-Day Action Plan” included a commitment to “charge the Police Commissioner … with developing a strategy to permanently shut down open-air drug markets, including in Kensington.” Her plan involved declaring a “public health” state of emergency meant to liberate funds for “maximizing the deployment of the current police force and increasing the number of police officers trained and equipped to engage in community policing across Philadelphia” and direct law enforcement toward particular ends — the arrest and disappearance of people who are avatars of what Parker calls “lawlessness.” Her policies for public safety not only includes “community policing” but stop-and-frisk searches.

This “law-and-order” response to Kensington’s open-air drug market relies on carceral punishments as the only mechanism to ensure the “safety” of the surveilled community. Council member Quetcy Lozada, a member of the recently formed Kensington Caucus, said of the city’s plans that, “We can be compassionate and we can be empathetic, and we can respect people’s rights and people’s lives and people’s conditions, even though we are bringing them in through the arrest process.” These violations of bodily autonomy and violent encounters with police through which people will be sent to jails and hazardous treatment centers are framed as “empathy.”

Kensington, or the “The Badlands”

Corporate media coverage and revisionist histories have created varied cultural tropes of Kensington. It’s the East Coast’s largest “open-air drug market,” wrought by gang wars. In 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a tweet of an image in which Google Maps labeled Kensington as the “Philadelphia Badlands.” In recent years, Kensington has also come to be referred to by locals and tourists as “Zombieland,” and content-hungry, voyeuristic YouTubers and TikTokers intending to garner views and profits have descended on Kensington to post images and videos of nonconsenting individuals in the throes of the overdose crisis. As Billy Boyer of the SOL Collective notes, people “partake in the conditions of people’s suffering and feel no responsibility for the continuation of their existence. They have an ‘I’m glad that’s not me’ response.”

How are we to make sense of Kensington’s sordid social, political and economic history, and the role the neighborhood currently plays in culture? In her book Abolition Geography, abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes this phenomenon as “organized abandonment.” Gilmore details three separate dynamics that work together to congeal as organized abandonment:

  1. The retrenchment of the welfare state;
  2. capital flight, the outsourcing and mechanization of factories and the flexibilization of labor;
  3. state-organized violence, or the rise of mass incarceration in order to manage the deleterious effect of the previous two.

At the same time as Kensington’s factories were being shuttered and workers were replaced with machines, reactionary forces at the national, state and municipal level initiated a steady dismantlement of the welfare state, originally established in the wake of the Great Depression to catch workers falling between the economic cracks of the labor market. In the wake of this abandonment by capital and the state, militarized policing and the contemporary prison were explicitly designed to manage the effects of neoliberal restructuring on these abandoned populations.

For Gilmore, crisis is what opens the door to organized abandonment, as a moral panic over inner-city “crime” and an experience of increased economic insecurity for all workers “collide and combine into the crises that prison ‘fixes’” within the white supremacist voting bloc imaginary. Politicians like Mayor Parker who run on “law-and-order” campaigns promising to “clean up the city” through carceral solutions garner electoral victories as more and more abandoned, vulnerable people are captured and carted off to jail and prisons. It should be noted that these crises are, of course, direct results of the state’s own actions — enforced deprivation and neglect of its populations. They are not naturally occurring nor inevitable.

Treatment or Incarceration?

People arrested under Parker’s approach are being given a “choice”: Enter treatment, or go to jail. But Philadelphia’s addiction services are already overcrowded, underfunded and underresourced. The website for the city’s “Opioid Response Unit” claims it’s expanding access to treatment, but they’re actually doing the opposite. Their website claims only one active treatment center, Northeast Treatment Center (NeT), a 24/7 facility that also provides other “trauma-informed behavioral health and social services,” stretching its capacity to provide adequate treatment for substance-use disorder beyond the breaking point.

Philadelphia’s extensive network of mostly informal recovery houses is running on fumes and is unable to provide humane detox services and withdrawal treatment. In addition, some “recovery houses” financially prey on their clients/patients. Correction facilities themselves clearly aren’t exemplary health care settings. Staff routinely deny medical care and offer terrible services, and prisoners pay $2-$5 copay fees from their ¢14-62 daily wages (if they work and earn wages, at all), within the already dangerous conditions of prisons and jails. Prisons are themselves death zones unable to treat those with substance-use disorder humanely. In this context, city officials’ plans are murderous.

The city of Philadelphia and the federal government are using police and prisons as tools to disappear social problems by disappearing people. The Kensington raid is an example of policies that will continue in Philadelphia and elsewhere. This strategy fails to create life-sustaining change and further harms people while also bypassing the state’s responsibility to provide living-wage jobs, affordable housing and accessible and destigmatized health care.

Along with the arrests and disappearances, most prominently Council member Quetcy Lozada has also helped displace harm reduction groups like Savage Sisters, and the city plans to shutter other harm reduction services in Kensington. Last September, the city council passed a ban on safe injection sites. Safe injection sites lower the number of overdoses and, most importantly, reduce overdose deaths — without these life-saving services, more people will die.

Where the city offers an enthusiastic embrace of violent police intervention, harm reduction workers are devoted to supporting the well-being, bodily autonomy and self-determination of people who are unhoused and use criminalized drugs. As SOL Collective’s Ray Boyer told us, harm reduction necessarily includes distributing free safe drug-use supplies (syringes, snorting kits, pipes, etc.), blankets and food, and providing wound and other medical treatment. In its most robust forms, it also involves providing housing, destigmatized health care and essentials that people need to live with dignity.

The city’s strategies are nothing less than a mobilization of their power to push unhoused people who use drugs toward premature death in treatment centers, jails and prisons. This is what happened on February 1, when the city invoked its power and captured civilians in order to display its refusal to reduce harm.

Abolitionist harm reduction recognizes that people on the margins must have what they need and want. It also recognizes that the carceral state has always been hell-bent on refusing that. Why would methods that discard, maim, kill, and otherwise harm people be reasonable means to ensure that unhoused people who use drugs — already forced into various states of disability and suffering through racialization, eviction and criminalization — live dignified, healthy lives?

Note: The authors are students in an undergraduate seminar entitled “Carceral Crisis: The Question of Abolition” taught by Timothy Malone at the University of Pennsylvania.

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