The Democratic candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, Cherelle Parker, is promising to bring the National Guard onto the streets of Kensington as a response to drug sales. This militarized approach would appall opponents of the drug war, who instead demand services, safety and housing for people in need.
Cherelle Parker, a former majority leader of the City Council, beat eight other Democrates in the May primary. She faces Republican David Oh in the November 7 general election—and is strongly favored to win, when Philadelphia hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1947.
On October 23, she participated in a town hall hosted by TV station 6 ABC, where a participant asked her if she would request assistance from the National Guard to address crime in the city. Parker praised the force’s role in Philadelphia amid the 2020 racial justice protests, saying residents “respected the peaceful nature in which we partnered with the National Guard.”
“They will be a part of the solution.”
“Will I call on them to help us, for example, shut down the open-air drug market in Kensington that’s being allowed to prevail? They will be a part of the solution,” she continued. “What that looks like, I’m going to have an experienced police commissioner who’s going to define what that plan is.”
Parker elaborated in an October 24 statement that she would take “a strong intergovernmental approach to address the crisis ongoing in Kensington,” vowing to “ensure we put an end to the open-air drug market and drug use residents are being forced to live with.”
“The reality is, no one has a solution for Kensington,” Brooke Feldman, a Philadelphia social worker and harm reductionist, told Filter. Feldman previously helped fight for a bill to expand syringe service programs statewide in Pennsylvania.
“We know what has been tried that hasn’t worked,” she said. “We’ve heard all kinds of ideas proposed by people who aren’t drug policy experts and maybe don’t have experience being a drug user or living with substance use disorder. So we have policymakers and elected officials who grab at straws for solutions.”
Parker’s stance isn’t entirely surprising after she won her primary with a conservative message around crime, drugs and police. Her platform does include some harm reduction-adjacent measures like “community engagement and investment,” violence intervention, and expanding access to jobs, education, mentoring, housing, health care and food. But she promised to hire 300 new police officers, has opposed opening a safe consumption site in Philadelphia, and called the deeply controversial stop-and-frisk practice a “necessary” tool for police.
It’s nonetheless shocking to hear the likely mayor of one of America’s biggest cities speaking so casually about mobilizing National Guard troops to address a health and social crisis. It’s reminiscent of the infamous New York Times op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), calling on the federal government to deploy troops to US cities in response to the 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd.
Parker’s call to “put an end” to the drug market clearly hints at an enforcement role, liable to produce further harassment, abuses and violence.
There may be differences, however. While Cotton was calling for a deployment of armed troops to violently suppress mostly peaceful protests, Parker’s plan is more ambiguous. National Guard members can be deployed with permission from a state governor to respond to a disaster or emergency, including natural disasters like hurricanes, and were used in states like New York in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. National Guard members are not trained as law enforcement even if they work with local police forces, and legally cannot make arrests.
In 2022, Philadelphia City Council passed a nonbinding resolution to declare a state of emergency in Kensington, and Mayor Jim Kenney (D) and former Governor Tom Wolf (D) have both issued disaster declarations in Philadelphia related to the opioid-involved crisis.
A charitable interpretation would be that Parker might have National Guard troops distributing naloxone and other resources. But her call to “put an end” to the drug market clearly hints at an enforcement role, liable to produce further harassment, abuses and violence against people who use drugs.
“We saw in Philadelphia during civil unrest after George Floyd a National Guard presence, and in Kensington for people who live in the community there was a mixed reaction,” Feldman related. “Some people were happy to see them because they felt safer—but I think people who use and sell drugs obviously weren’t.”
Another major city has already called in the National Guard to assist in a crackdown on drug use and sales in a troubled neighborhood. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has overseen a years-long operation to “take back our Tenderloin.” It started with a heightened police presence as she proposed giving them new powers and overtime funding, and has expanded. In April 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom got the state involved by deploying Highway Patrol and National Guard members to work with San Francisco cops and “focus on targeting fentanyl trafficking, disrupting the supply of the deadly drug in the city, and holding the operators of drug trafficking rings accountable.”
In the first couple months, the joint forces reported seizing 8.1 kilos of fentanyl and made 115 felony and misdemeanor arrests in and around the Tenderloin. The National Guard specifically “provided critical analysis and technical support to law enforcement to shut down drug trafficking operations in the city.”
“The National Guard is more of an optical illusion of safety that would not [help]. And we need to get deeper at why Kensington is how it is.”
The Kensington neighborhood, on Philadelphia’s northeast side, has for years drawn headlines and stigmatizing portrayals around drug use and sales, overdose and homelessness. These crises played a role in this year’s mayoral primary, as candidates including Alan Domb and Rebecca Rhynhart spoke of declaring a public health emergency in the neighborhood and increasing police patrols.
Citywide, health department data show that over 1,400 people lost their lives to overdose in 2022—a record high—and deaths have been disproportionately concentrated in Kensington. The neighborhood has seen police raids against encampments of unhoused people cause many harms. It’s also seen high levels of gun violence over the years—according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, at least 300 people were shot near one intersection from 2015-2021.
“Kensington is the epicenter of the overdose death crisis and the results of the War on Drugs, and the forced, unregulated market,” Feldman said. “I’ve traveled around the country and I have not seen anywhere like Kensington. For Philadelphians and those who live around it, what to do about Kensington is a hot topic—as it should be, because it’s really not okay.”
Feldman holds out hope that whoever the next mayor is, harm reduction advocates will have the opportunity to lobby for a more humane approach to drug use and sales. She supports safe consumption sites, but also said that the long-running legal battle over Safehouse—a nonprofit that seeks to open a site in Philadelphia but was sued by the Trump administration and is still opposed by the Biden administration—has absorbed much focus and attention when other policies, like repealing the city’s outdoor smoking ban at drug treatment programs, are also important.
“Even though Parker’s rhetoric sounds very unfriendly to harm reduction, my hope is there are people who can get in there closest to the problem so we can work with this administration to get at solutions that help and don’t further the problems,” Feldman said. “The National Guard is more of an optical illusion of safety that would not [help]. And we need to get deeper at why Kensington is how it is.”
Photograph of Pennsylvania National Guard via offical Facebook page