Investigators from a Philadelphia Police Department counterterrorism unit repeatedly visited the home of a Philadelphia senior citizen who sent flower arrangements to Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy’s residence as part of a political demonstration in May.
Jose de Marco sent the funerary wreaths and helped stage a small protest outside of Abernathy’s home on May 6 after a man living in a city homeless shelter succumbed to COVID-19.
de Marco, a West Philadelphia native who worked at a needle exchange before coronavirus struck, is affiliated with the grassroots political group ACT UP, which organized the demonstration. The demonstration was meant to call attention to the death of the shelter resident and the city’s broader affordable housing crisis.
“As someone who has worked on AIDS issues for 25 years, this is all familiar to us. It’s Black and brown people, often living with HIV, that are suffering,” said de Marco, who is HIV positive. “Homeless Black and brown people don’t matter. I believe it’s our job to make sure they know people’s lives are important.”
ACT UP formed in the 1980s to draw attention to the AIDS crisis and has a long history of “direct action,” including staging protests at officials’ homes. Chapters later organized around broader social inequities that “threaten people living with HIV/AIDS and those at risk of infection,” like the shortage of affordable housing.
de Marco said that he had paid a florist to deliver the floral wreath to Abernathy’s doorstep with a card addressed to the high-ranking city official.
“It was a sympathy card for all the people that died of COVID because of your inaction,” de Marco said.
But the activist was stunned when, later that day, a detective with the city’s Counter Terrorism Operations Unit, called him about the flower arrangement.
“They were doing this intensive questioning on the phone. I said, ‘Do you want to talk in person?’ And they said ‘Yeah, we would,’” de Marco recalled.
De Marco said a pair of detectives arrived at a Kensington home he shares with a roommate shortly afterward. He said he believes the police visits were intended as an “intimidation” tactic.
“They said, ‘How did you know where [Abernathy] lived?’ I said, ‘I googled it,’” de Marco recounted. “They said, ‘OK, well you have to be really careful, he’s a city official.’”
But, unbeknownst to de Marco, he had accidentally clicked an order button on a florist’s website twice. A second, identical wreath and card arrived at Abernathy’s home not long after the first.
The same detectives soon returned to de Marco’s house with the second wreath in hand.
“They came to show me the flowers and cards again, and I almost didn’t believe them,” he said, of the second visit. “They said, ‘Jose, please, no more flowers.’ And I said, ‘I’ll never do flowers again.’”
The police department confirmed both visits took place, but a spokesperson said he was “unable to comment on the specific investigative steps that have been taken with regard to this investigation.”
Abernathy said in an emailed statement that the two funeral arrangements arrived at his home when his wife was there alone with their two children.
“I believed it was prudent to report it to police to investigate the origin and ensure that it wasn’t meant as a physical threat against me or my family,”Abernathy said, noting that he “appreciates everyone’s rights to express their views” and “did not influence how the officers carried out their investigation”
“Because of the nature of my role, I also understand that people may feel the need to send messages to me directly,” the city official added.
The Counterrorism Unit, which is funded with Homeland Security dollars, has a broad mission statement in Philadelphia. The unit is nominally charged with investigating actual terrorist threats but also with dignitary protection –– planning major event security and monitoring heads of state that visit the city, such as Pope Francis.
The unit, headquartered in South Philadelphia’s Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, also interviewed a WHYY News reporter following the publication of a news story that detailed ACT UP’s plans to stage a protest outside Abernathy’s home. When about two dozen activists staged a sit-in in the lobby of the Municipal Services Building last week to call for Abernathy’s ouster, Counterterrorism agents appeared once again to help arrest the picketers.
In the past, the unit also investigated Philadelphia Magazine journalist Ernest Owens after a “high-ranking Mummer” apparently complained about a Facebook post he authored decrying the parade, which draws annual complaints over the use of blackface and racist sketches.
“I’m thinking: ‘They’re calling me about something on Facebook?’ Police shouldn’t be engaging me over a Facebook post,” Owens told the Inquirer, at that time.
de Marco too said he was mostly surprised counterterrorism agents had gone to the trouble of tracing the flowers back to him. He said his goal was only to draw attention to a citywide housing crisis.
“Affordable housing is an HIV prevention tool. But people get put on a housing waitlist that’s 10 years long,” he said. “I’m lucky to share a place with housemates, but it can be so hard to find affordable places to live. I grew up in West Philly but it’s so gentrified now, people can’t afford to live in their own neighborhoods.”
The activist, who has participated in ACT UP demonstrations for over 30 years, described visits to officials’ homes and flower deliveries as “a protest tactic” aimed at holding policymakers personally accountable for these failings.
The group staged similar stunts in front of the White House and outside the personal residence of other national political figures, like U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey –– but de Marco said he could not recall similar responses from law enforcement.
“I think it was retaliatory,” he said of the visits. “It was just to let me know that in Philadelphia, Brian Abernathy has a lot of power.”
de Marco said he held no ill will to the detectives who showed up at his house. He said they did not appear to be armed and were courteous –– albeit embarrassed.
“It was just really weird to have them come to my house. They were almost apologetic, although they didn’t say sorry or anything like that,” de Marco said. “Also, they kept the flowers and that made me a little pissed off. They were really nice flowers.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 2, 2020 after original publication with comment from Brian Abernathy.