New anti-violence coaltion will "hug the block" until mayoral election

In the streets, if someone “hugs the block,” that can mean they are hanging outside and selling drugs.

Beginning last month, a group of anti-violence activists began posting up on Philadelphia’s most dangerous blocks between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. for 77 consecutive days leading up to the Nov. 7 municipal election.

The initiative, known as Operation Hug the Block, is a collaboration between Philly Truce, which operates a cellphone app aimed at mediating disputes before they turn violent, and Jamal Johnson’s Stop Killing Us.

Participants plan to walk up and down, engaging neighbors and being a positive presence. The first gathering will be held on the 3700 block of N. Broad Street.

Organizers say the goal is to activate residents most affected by violence and build momentum to pressure the city’s next mayor to do more to stop the gunfire.

“The ultimate outcome would be that people on those blocks take up this as we go,” Mazzie Casher, CEO and executive director of Philly Truce, told Metro. “We got to get to a critical mass of people, the same way people got motivated by George Floyd.”

A 2021 Inquirer article identified 57 blocks where 10 or more people had been shot since 2015, and a coalition led by the District Attorney’s Office formed to focus on those areas. Now, the number of blocks is up to 77, according to Operation Hug the Block.

Johnson, who walks to Washington, D.C., annually to push for police reform and changes to gun laws, often shows up in the aftermath of a shooting to demonstrate at the scene. He engages neighbors and passersby.

“Sometimes they unfortunately cry to me and they say, ‘We were so glad somebody’s out here.’” Johnson added. “And just think if we could multiply that across the city of Philadelphia.”

Operation Hug the Block is modeled on Philly Truce’s Peace Patrols, one of several programs that grew out of the app, which allows users to work through issues with trained mediators.

“My whole purpose here is to let people know that you don’t have to tolerate this,” said Steven Pickens, co-founder of Philly Truce. “You shouldn’t tolerate it, because it’s not being tolerated anywhere else, in the other communities except the Black and brown communities.”

Recently, much of the app’s conflict resolution has focused on young boys, between the ages of 11 and 15, according to Casher. He wants the next mayor – whether it be Democrat Cherelle Parker or GOP nominee David Oh – to develop a long-term plan to invest to reach young people at a young age.

“We’re not giving them nothing to base a future on, so they don’t have a vision for a future and if you don’t have that, you don’t value your life,” Casher said. “If I don’t value my life, I’m not going to be able to value yours. And that’s what a lot of these kids are dealing with.”

Johnson went on hunger strike two years ago outside City Hall after Mayor Jim Kenney declined to sign a City Council resolution declaring a state of emergency around gun violence. He now supports increasing stop-and-frisk and bringing the National Guard to Philadelphia.

“We can’t just haphazardly carry on business as usual,” Johnson added.

Whatever the solution, Operation Hug the Block hopes to kickstart increased conversation and activism, with residents holding “peace patrols” on their own blocks and demanding more from the city.

“If we don’t change the vibe before election day, it’s not going to be nothing compelling the new mayor to do anything different,” Casher said. “If you’re on one of these blocks, open the door when you hear us coming by and come outside.”

For more information, including a calendar with dates and locations, go here.

From Metro Philadelphia