City Council members pledge support after threat to anti-violence activists

Operation Hug the block
Mazzie Casher, left, and Steven Pickens, center, of Philly Truce, pose for a photograph with Jamal Johnson, of Stop Killing Us. The three are involved in organizing Operation Hug the Block.
Metro file

A dozen members of City Council pledged support Monday for Operation Hug the Block after someone threatened anti-violence activists during one of the group’s patrols last week in Kensington.

Participants in the effort, a collaboration of Philly Truce and Jamal Johnson’s Stop Killing Us, have been posting up on the city’s most dangerous blocks every night between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Johnson said a man on a bicycle with his mask and hood up approached him and another person in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 17, as they were sitting near the corner of A Street and Indiana Avenue.

“He said we need to shut it down,” he told Metro. “Then he went on to say they’re going to pull up on y’all and clear this place out.”

“It was definitely a threat, no doubt about it,” added Johnson, who often shows up at homicide scenes to protest against violence.

Instead of packing up, Johnson called back members of the group who were marching through the streets, along with their police escort.

“We’re asking the community to start coming back out and bring some normalcy to our communities again,” he said Monday. “We’ve just been in this hostage situation with this gun violence for years.

“So how could we encourage other people to come out if we’re not willing to continue our life in a normal way when somebody does something like this? We did increase security as a result of it, but we have to be an example of what we want.”

An hour or two earlier, in the same area, a man told Operation Hug the Block participants that their presence was not welcome on his block, and he exchanged words with a police officer who was with the group, Johnson said.

“We continued on down,” he said. “By the time we got to the end of the block, people were actually clapping.”

The response from residents has been mostly positive since the initiative began more than a month ago, Johnson said.

Operation Hug the Block’s mission is to display a peaceful presence on the 77 blocks where 10 or more people have been shot since 2015. The patrols are scheduled every night leading up to the Nov. 7 election, when Philadelphia voters will choose a new mayor.

The hope is to encourage neighbors to take back their blocks and build momentum to pressure the city’s next mayor to take additional action to reduce gun violence, organizers told Metro last month.

Twelve of the 15 members of council signed onto a statement Monday denouncing the threat and urging faith leaders, community organizations and others to join the patrols.

“Our commitment to anti-violence must extend beyond words,” the statement read. “Now is the time to take action to show the brave volunteers of Operation Hug the Block that they are not alone and to support their efforts to prevent violence in our communities.”

The council members – Kendra Brooks, Curtis Jones Jr., Kenyatta Johnson, Jamie Gauthier, Sharon Vaughn, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Anthony Phillips, Mark Squilla, Quetcy Lozada, Mike Driscoll and Cindy Bass – also vowed to participate in an upcoming patrol.

Johnson, who has long called on elected officials to do more to stop the gunfire, is skeptical. Thus far, only four politicians – Kenyatta Johnson, Lozada, state Rep. Amen Brown and former councilmember and GOP mayoral candidate David Oh – have appeared at a Operation Hug the Block patrol, he said.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Johnson said. “I appreciate the words. Words are words, but actions speak louder than words.”