Raid On Gilbert’s Shoes Demystified
by Tessa Landreau-Grasmuck and dave onion
On the morning of Friday, June 13th, 2008, Philadelphia police entered a Ridge Avenue home without a warrant and arrested four Philadelphia community members and dear friends – Daniel Moffat, Trevor Burgess, Andrea Okorley, and Jennifer Rock. These residents were pulled from their home at 1652 Ridge Avenue, arrested, and detained without charges at the Ninth District for over twelve hours. During their detention, Philadelphia Police called in the City’s Licenses and Inspections Agency, who deemed the house uninhabitable, and sealed the doors. Despite an extraordinary output of community support in response to the raid, the residents of the affectionately named Shoe Store are still facing an arduous struggle to reclaim their home. As we continue to support the displaced family of the Ridge Avenue Shoe Store, we seek to put their situation in the context of policing and displacement happening city, nation and world wide. We send this letter with two-fold intention: to respond to all the comrades who have asked how they can help, as well as to activate our support for those affected by these policies in the context of a diverse movement with wide and varied experience.
The Ridge Avenue Shoe Store is located in North Philadelphia’s Francisville neighborhood. Like many Philly neighborhoods, Francisville is a poor, black, neglected and economically marginalized part of the city. It is neighbored, however, by the newly affluent, mostly white, Spring Garden and Fairmount, making it a recent prime site of real estate speculation. The Francisville Community Development plan discusses a “Ridge Avenue Corridor;” the main artery of the neighborhood to become a pedestrian friendly commercial center replacing homes with businesses and parking lots. The Shoe Store residents identify Francisville in the early processes of urban gentrification (here, the process of poor people, mostly of color, being displaced by those with more resources and economic power). The forces of gentrification in Francisville look similar to the same process in other parts of the United States: further policing and surveillance, police harassment of homeless and youth, evictions of squatters, early developers purchasing abandoned buildings, increased city attention on the historically ignored “quality” of the neighborhood buildings and property tax increases up to 1000% (700% in the case of the Shoe Store).
The new mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter ran on a platform of crime reduction in the nationally renowned “Killadelphia.” He was elected promising to implement “stop and frisk” policing, a vague policy modeled after a New York City initiative with results of legalized racial profiling. Nutter appointed Charles Ramsey as police chief to partner with him in the crime crackdown. In his first months as police chief, Ramsey, well known in Chicago and DC for his political repression and extensive infiltration and snitch programs, ran a police force which experienced a number of on-duty deaths recently, and has, in response, become fearful and angry.
Poor neighborhoods and people of color, particularly young black men, have felt increased policing and harassment since Nutter’s inauguration. In early May, Fox News caught the Rodney King style beating of 3 black men by a mob of cops on camera. The situation here looks bleak. The city has not seen a dramatic decline in violence. School funding and employment opportunities remain at some of the lowest levels in the country. But some have started organizing. A fledgling coalition against police brutality had been circulating petitions to pressure the District Attorney Lynn Abraham to hold police accountable for their savage treatment of Philadelphians recently. Francisville has experienced this “crack-down on crime” first hand, mainly in the form of increased targeting of black youth. Police brutality and harassment is a frequent experience of Francisville residents.
Surveillance cameras have been introduced into “high crime” communities all across the city, a program left over from the former Mayor Street. Francisville is reportedly among the first neighborhoods to have surveillance cameras installed. It’s now impossible to enter or exit the neighborhood without passing a police camera. Among the five new cameras in Francisville, one appeared on the block of the Shoe Store, another just down the street on Ridge Avenue. A few days before the raid, this camera had been painted with yellow spray-paint, effectively putting it out of commission. 2500 more cameras are planned for the rest of Philly. Funded by Federal dollars, almost all these cameras are destined for communities of color and around high schools with large black populations.
Some of our readers may know the residents of the Shoe Store first hand. For those who don’t, living at the Shoe Store was a group of young folks, who are committed to principled political and community work for social change. Shoe store residents have done anti-war, anti-imperialist and international solidarity work; they work in shelters, mobilize against sexual assault, are engaged in prison activism, run a free food distribution, and are community gardeners.
Residents of the Shoe Store, in conjunction with members of their community, began to ask why Francisville, in particular, was feeling such increased police presence, and why now. In the week leading up to the raid, they gathered signatures on a petition requesting a community consultation on the new surveillance cameras as well as on the petition on the police violence.
At 11 AM plainclothes detectives and the Police Captain of the Ninth Precinct came to the door of the Shoe Store. Daniel Moffat aka Wiley, the legal owner of the building came to the door, and was immediately threatened by the officers who claimed to be checking out a complaint of trespassing in an abandoned property. Wiley locked the front gate and tossed the keys to the house through the gate, when the police produced no warrant to enter or search the building. He was handcuffed. He then watched the police force entry to the building. The three other residents home at the time were on the roof of the building. They too demanded that the police produce a warrant, but were instead offered handcuffs and the back of police cars.
Word had spread about the illegal entry of police into the house, and friends from the neighborhood and other parts of the city gathered to observe and document. The presence of observers made the police clearly uncomfortable. While support arrived on the corner across from the Shoe Store, so did nearly a dozen other law enforcement agencies. With no warrant, the police went in and out of the house, ostensibly looking for something to charge the residents with. Captain Wilson, of the Ninth District and among the first to arrive at the Shoe Store, told a City Paper reporter: “We’re trying to drum up charges against them, but, unfortunately, we’ll probably have to let them go.”
While still waiting in the squad cars, Police called the the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) to come to the house. Since large parts of the house are being rehabbed, numerous inspectors, with free reign and no time limits, ordered that the house be cleared and sealed. This is not the first time L&I inspections have been used for politically motivated evictions. Especially in the gentrification climate today, more and more Philadelphians are feeling the heat of L&I, apparently more motivated by police or speculators than any pretense of public safety. during the course of the raid a number of other agencies showed up including PA State Police, Fire Marshalls, captains from other districts, various higher up police bureaucrats and a fair number of plain clothes detectives. Homeland Security was called to the scene, after which an observer overheard her expressing anger at having been called unnecessarily.
The last of the residents were released from police custody at 3:30 am on Saturday morning. None were ever charged. They then received notice that they would have 2 hours to remove all their belongings from the building, starting at 10 am the same day. Friends mobilized to help, but the residents were only able to take out what they could carry. Allowed in one at a time, and with police presence, they found their papers and photos strewn about their rooms. As Andrea, the only African American resident, struggled to carry her guitar out with other belongings, police snidely insinuated she had stolen it and refused to allow her to re-enter. During the illegal search of the house the day before, police took into custody a laptop computer, the paper trail to which leads to PA State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Intelligence Division - which is part of the Joint Anti-Terrorist Task Force(JATTF). Also missing from the house were a house phone list posted on the wall, notebooks, photos, and phone books.
The Shoe Store residents received an unbelievable outpouring of support from their friends. On Saturday evening, a community meeting was held in West Philadelphia to provide testimony on exactly what happened. Over 100 people gathered creating a room privileged with resources and know-how to begin organizing on behalf of the residents immediately. Large media, legal and fund raising work-in groups formed.
Of crucial importance to the Shoe Store residents is that the raid on their building be put into the context of the development, surveillance, and organizing happening in their community. On Monday afternoon the residents participated in a Francisville community meeting. Over 50 people came and discussed police harassment and gentrification in their neighborhood. Numerous neighborhood residents voiced concerns about police harassment, including having cars impounded for no obvious reason, things being stolen from houses by police during searches and police breaking into buildings with warrants for other addresses.
The Shoe Store residents are committed to remain an active part of their Francisville community, and continue the dialogue from this community meeting.
On June 17th, the Shoe Store in exile held a press conference outside of City Hall. The event was well attended by press, supporters, and police. See below for links of what was for the most part sympathetic media coverage.
Police tried to paint the Shoe Store residents as a hate-group, as dangerous troublemakers. They have attempted to call the greenhouse on the roof a “bunker” referring to possibly the most notoriously shameful piece of institutional racism in Philadelphia’s police history: the police bombing of the MOVE Organization’s West Philadelphia home which burned down an entire city block and killed 11 people. Police also claimed there was anti-police graffiti and “propaganda” inside the house, apparently aggravated by the petitions mentioned earlier.
After demands from the residents, L&I did a walk through with a structural engineer who jointly determined the house was safe and the owner would be allowed back in, in effect forcing them to unseal the building and return the keys. So the threat of the building being cleaned and sealed (ie. losing all their stuff) has blown over. The pressure necessary to make that happen came from a mix of grassroots Francisville support, media pressure, some legal pressure and working some folks’ personal relationships with politicians and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the rest of the house can’t live there legally and have been crashing at friend’s houses since the raid. They are considering legal proceedings against the city.
If it were not for the Shoe Store’s personal connections to a loose network of friends, organizers and activists, such access to media, lawyers and politicians would not have been possible. Also, if it were not for the years of work meeting people and building personal relationships in Francisville, it would not have been possible for the Shoe Store to mobilize such widespread support in their community and put pressure on the politicians from the grassroots of the district.
It is of deep concern to the Shoe Store that people understand this raid in the context of gentrification and police brutality in Francisville, and in the city of Philadelphia. And that it’s not just the Shoe Store feeling this sort of pressure, the rest of the neighborhood has felt it much more consistently. As organizers and radicals, it’s imperative we extend that sort of solidarity to others as well, to people beyond our direct communities of friends who feel the brunt of displacement and state violence, but may not have access to this kind of political network.
People continue to pour in with questions of how to support. Following is a list to answer that question, including media support, as well as some links to some resources focusing on gentrification and media coverage of the raid.
The Shoe Store has been ordered to bring the building up to code, a massive and expensive project. Though they have the skills and knowledge to do this themselves, it needs to be done by licensed contractors. So they’re especially looking for licensed electricians. But also licensed plumbers, carpenters etc., if you know one or are one, please pass on the word!
The fund raising crew has put together an appeal for funds ( http://defenestrator.org/shoe_store_funds ). Essentially they are looking for funds to help them cover the roughly $1000 of costs from the raid, though they may have future appeals when costs come up. If you’d like to make a donation, you may do so in cash or check (made out to Jennifer Rock). We can pick these up from you, or you can drop them off at LAVA or 4722 Baltimore (the mail-slot to the left of the A-SPACE). Mark them “SHOE STORE” in big letters. For those out of town, send them to LAVA, attn. Gilbert’s Shoes, 4134 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
It’s useful to keep the media buzz going about the raid, so write letters to editors of Philly Papers letting them know that you think L&I is being used to mess with people who are critical of police. It is important to make the links to ongoing issues of police violence, surveillance and gentrification too! Commenting on the current stories in the papers and blogs will help keep these stories alive as well!
you can use this handy tool to fire off a number of letters to editors at once: http://wilpf.org/letter-editor/
You can be in touch directly: Shoe Store, 1652 Ridge Ave, Philadelphia PA 19130-2135