Calling for fair school funding, clergy, activists, Philly Councilmember Gym detained after interrupting Pa. Senate session

By: - June 23, 2021 3:49 pm

Detained clergy, activists, and Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym outside the Pa. Senate chamber on 6/23/21 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

(*This story was updated at 5:03 p.m. with additional comment from the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, which has oversight of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Police)

More than a dozen members of the clergy, activists, and a member of Philadelphia City Council were detained Wednesday after they unsuccessfully sought entrance to the state Senate’s public gallery and ignored a dispersal order from Pennsylvania Capitol Police.

The group, which included members of the statewide interfaith group POWER, as well as At-Large Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, a likely Philadelphia mayoral candidate, gathered at the Capitol around 1 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon to visit lawmakers’ offices and to appeal to them to approve Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to inject an additional $1.55 billion into public education and channel all of that money through the state’s Fair Funding Formula.

Black plastic zip ties were clearly visible around the wrists of those detained. The protest came as lawmakers in the House and Senate raced to approve a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

*In all, 15 people were taken into custody and were issued “non-traffic” citations for defiant trespass, said Troy Thompson, a spokesperson for the state Department of General Services, which has oversight of the Capitol Police. The 15, who included Gym, were not booked, and have the choice of paying a fine, or challenging their citation before a magisterial district justice, Thompson said.

“I feel that this is a disgrace that faith leaders who are fighting for the lives and education of Pennsylvania’s children were arrested at the state Capitol,” the Rev. Yvette Davis, a member of POWER who works out of the group’s office in Harrisburg told the Capital-Star.

After stops outside the offices of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, the group took an elevator to the Capitol’s fourth floor, where they tried to gain entrance to the Senate’s public gallery.

Inside, the Republican-controlled chamber was holding meetings of the Senate Government and Appropriations committees, a spokesperson for Costa told the Capital-Star.

The group were initially denied entry by security officers posted outside the doors to the gallery after being told the chamber was in recess. In response, they began banging on the door in a scene reminiscent of a similar incident in Georgia’s state capitol in March that saw a Black lawmaker arrested as she tried to gain entrance to a press conference on the Peach State’s restrictive new voting law.

The protesters then staged a sit-in and an organizer said Capitol police had told him they would not be allowed entry because authorities feared they would try to disrupt the chamber’s proceedings. Capitol police officers, including one holding a video camera who was recording the proceedings, slowly began massing outside the chamber.

A short time later, a bullhorn-wielding officer declared the protest an unlawful event and ordered protesters to disperse, warning they risked arrest and the possible use of force if they refused. Slowly, groups of protesters were led away, and loaded into an elevator. They were taken to the Capitol Police’s office in the building’s East Wing for processing.

Protesters had telegraphed their intentions ahead of time, releasing a statement saying they were coming to Harrisburg to “engage in “civil disobedience” and “disrupt business as usual in the General Assembly to make sure lawmakers in the Capitol hear this call for justice,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The tactic appeared to work. The door banging and chants were audible on the Senate’s internal audio feed and live stream.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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