Mac McLaughlin stumbled as he felt a blow to the side of his head.
The next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed and arrested.
For the second time in three days, McLaughlin, a 49-year-old Marine veteran, was getting locked up for “failure to disperse” at the Occupy ICE protest camp in Center City. As police charged the demonstrators Thursday, he said, one swung his bicycle, and a handlebar caught McLaughlin.
For him, after his release, the next move was clear: back to the front lines of protest.
On Friday, the Audubon electrician was upright and eager to continue the demonstration that had been forcibly removed from outside the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Eighth and Cherry Streets, then reconstituted at City Hall.
But for others enmeshed in the nearly week-old drama — including Mayor Kenney and his Police Department — the future is harder to discern and fraught with risk.
The protesters see their movement shrinking, at least for the moment, with no discernible progress toward their goals. They want to abolish ICE, the agency charged with detaining and deporting migrants who enter the country without permission. They want the federal family detention center in Berks County shuttered. And they want the Kenney administration to cancel a contract that gives ICE access to city arrest information.
Meanwhile, a police department that has labored to overcome a reputation for violence is being criticized by demonstrators as overly aggressive. And a mayor who has been outspoken in support of immigrants sees parts of his coalition — migrant advocates and city law enforcement — battling each other a year before he runs for reelection.
Kenney said the demonstrators may stay as long as they wish, but not erect tents or other structures, as Occupy Wall Street protesters did in 2011.
“They can be out there today protesting,” Kenney said. “Signs, bullhorns, 24 hours a day. And we will keep them protected. … But having an Occupy situation like we had at Dilworth Plaza a few years ago became an unsanitary and unhealthy and unsafe environment.”
On Friday, at the Eighth and Cherry Street intersection where as many as 175 demonstrators had blocked entrances to the ICE office, all that remained were steel and chalk: metal fences that ensured access to the building and bright-colored protest slogans still scrawled on the street.
It was a smaller, wary, yet still determined group that established a new camp on the east side of City Hall, gathering under the watchful eye of the bronze statue of John Wanamaker. About 20 people formed shelters out of tarps and beach umbrellas.
“I understand that America has to be thoughtful in the way that we manage immigration,” McLaughlin said, but “the way things are done now is just cruel. These are people taking children away from their parents. They’re looking for help and relief and we’re treating them like criminals.”
The protest in Philadelphia comes amid a growing national call from immigration advocates to abolish ICE, with some Democrats saying the agency has become a deportation force that targets black and brown people. Some Republicans say eliminating ICE would mean abolishing the borders and opening the country to crime, drugs, and terrorism.
The Philadelphia protest has been organized by groups including Philly Socialists and the Democratic Socialists of America, and supported by Juntos and Asian Americans United, among others. Nationally, propelled in part by social media, the Occupy ICE movement has reached about a dozen cities, including New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Detroit, and Portland, Ore.
Emily Reed, 22, was also at City Hall after being arrested at the original encampment Tuesday, left with a scabbing wound on her right cheekbone and scars and bruises on both wrists. She and others were charged with failure to disperse and cited and released.
“I ended up on the ground,” Reed said. “I was getting zip-tied; they were stepping on my head and shoving my face into the ground.”
Thirty-six demonstrators were arrested last week.
Protesters said they still want to abolish ICE. But other issues had suddenly also become pressing.
“So far it’s just been surviving the police,” said a 25-year-old South Philadelphia woman who gave her name as the palindromic Noodle Eldoon. “They don’t care about us. They care about protecting government facilities that are taking away people from our communities.”
It might seem like a long shot to try to eliminate ICE, as if the agency has existed forever, given its prominence in the news.
But ICE is relatively new, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. And plenty of federal agencies have been redirected, absorbed, or abolished over the years, even though they were seen at the time as permanent parts of the federal bureaucracy.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, known as INS, disappeared in 2003. Most of its operations were shifted to three new agencies: ICE, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all within the new Department of Homeland Security.
“It may not be common or an easy task, but the abolition of a federal agency is still possible, and in the case of ICE, it is the right way forward,” said Caitlin Barry, an assistant professor at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. “In terms of the mechanics, it’s not rocket science — defund the agency, introduce legislation to abolish it, and reinvest the budget in other agencies with new missions. The fact that it would be hard to do does not mean it’s not possible.”
More and more information about the protests, and the players and groups involved, is being shared person-to-person across social media.
“A lot of us are asking questions — What is ICE? How long has it existed? — which is a sign the movement is succeeding,” said Dustin Kidd, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University and author of Social Media Freaks: Digital Identity in the Network Society.
“It’s highlighted that we don’t have to do immigration in one particular way. It can be done in other ways. A lot of us are aware of this because of the ‘Abolish ICE’ movement.”
Police officials declined to discuss specific plans for deployment or tactics, saying conditions on the ground at City Hall would dictate the response.
Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said the department’s goals are to ensure that no one is injured and that the right to protest is protected.
“You can’t hurt anybody, and you can’t damage property,” he said. “Those are the definites.”
One woman, her back bruised and neck sprained during her arrest, said by phone that she would not be returning to the Abolish ICE protest. Others who regrouped at City Hall were newly disinclined to provide their full names to news reporters, fearful of being harassed on social media.
“We want to show people we care about immigrants,” said Brian, 25, of Philadelphia, who was among those arrested. “It definitely left me shook. But I’m still here.”