Breaking the law — and wind — to bring DNC attention to Philly’s poor

Cheri Honkala

Cheri Honkala

Cheri Honkala wants to make sure the Democratic National Convention ends with a bang. Or at least a stinky cloud.

The longtime anti-poverty activist is organizing a “fart-in” to coincide with Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on July 28, the last day of the DNC here.

“We’re going to kill two birds with one stone: We’re collecting enough beans to feed a bunch of hungry people in Philadelphia, and then we’re going to surround the Democratic National Convention and have a national fart-in, as a final expression of what we think of this whole process,” said Honkala, who heads the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

If the fart-in seems like a juvenile prank to get press attention, it’s also part of a calculated, attention-grabbing strategy by a veteran activist who openly admits the media is her top tool in her fight to reduce poverty.

“It’s all about visibility because we have a responsibility, with 1,800 reporters coming into town, to talk about our social ills, not just in Philly but around the country, so that our elected officials can be moved to do something about it,” Honkala said. “The government is great at making us disappear. We have one shot, one moment, to figure out a way to have the rest of the world understand. That’s how we intend to protect people here.”

Beyond beans and bodily functions, Honkala has plenty planned that she hopes will get the national media talking about Philadelphia’s staggering poverty problem.

‘Clintonville’ encampment

She’s been scoping out vacant lots in North Philadelphia and Kensington to set up a DNC “Clintonville,” an encampment of poor people modeled on the Depression-era Hooverville shantytowns that poor and unemployed people built in the 1930s. Her group also aims to hold “reality tours” so reporters and others can see poor neighborhoods first-hand. And they’ll hold a “March for Our Lives” down Broad Street on July 25, even though the city has denied them a permit because the march conflicts with another event and rush hour.

Mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said last week that city officials were unaware of Honkala’s Clintonville plans until NewsWorks informed them. But, Hitt said, camping anywhere overnight during the DNC — or anytime — is against city law.

That’s something city leaders have said over and over again, specifically in relation to protesters planning to spend nights in FDR Park, where a “demonstration zone” will be set up across Broad Street from the Wells Fargo Center, site of the DNC.

Hitt repeated it again, in relation to Honkala’s plans.

“We simply don’t have the resources,” Hitt said. “If we permit (camping), we have to make sure we have ample police coverage, that there are adequate restrooms and washrooms, that there’s food, water and the ability to cook, medical coverage. The city’s responsibility and the taxpayers’ liability would be huge. Given everything that’s happening that week, we simply don’t have the resources to manage that type of operation.”

She added: “When camping was being considered for the pope (Francis visited last September), it was to be contracted out to a third party because we don’t have that type of expertise. The timing and necessary financial resources don’t allow that to happen for the DNC.”

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Cheri Honkala stands beside the lot where her group organized a tent city during Pope Francis’ visit.

But Honkala aims to ignore that law, the same way she plans to march without a permit.

“There’s a higher law, and that’s one of taking care of humanity,” Honkala said.

Further, those who will stay in Clintonville are homeless families whose requests for emergency housing have been rejected, she added.

“I challenge (city officials): If they want to come and take any of the families and put them into housing, go!” Honkala said.

Honkala organized a similar encampment during Pope Francis’ visit in September on a vacant lot at American and Cumberland streets in North Philly. She called it “The Church of the Poor” — although it didn’t last long. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which owns the lot, booted out campers because of concerns Hitt said involved “sanitation, open flames and general public safety.” City-issued signs declaring such encampments illegal now dot the lot, and workers erected chain-link fencing around it for extra measure.

Getting the message out

Still, such encampments are a Honkala signature move. During the 2000 RNC, she set up a four-day “Bushville” tent city in North Philly. Other Bushvilles followed in New York in 2004 and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2008, and a Romneyville in Tampa in 2012. None lasted long, and most ended in eviction and sometimes Honkala’s arrest.

In 1995, Honkala was arrested for building a tent city near the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall.

“I was put on daily reporting probation for six months. I know gun runners and drug dealers that never had that kind of reporting,” Honkala said last week.

Still, the threat of arrest does not deter her now, any more than it ever did.

“The more people that know the problem (of poverty), the more people will step forward to help us. So many people really have no idea how bad the poverty problem is,” Honkala said. (Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation, with 28 percent of citizens living below the federal poverty level, according to Shared Prosperity Philadelphia. That level is $24,300 in annual income for a family of four.)

Plus, Honkala added, not everything she has planned will prompt police to reach for the handcuffs.

“Farting is not against the law,” she said.



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