Busted Puppets: Philly Police Arrest Puppetistas, Toss Their Art Into the Trash
by John Tarleton
PHILADELPHIAThe grinding sound of a trash compactor could be heard from inside the former "Ministry of Puppetganda" for over four hours Wednesday as police destroyed hundreds of paper mache puppets and sent them away in garbage trucks.
"It's obscene watching all these beautiful works of art being crushed in an illegal police activity," said Renard Thompson, a puppeteer from Colebrook, Connecticut. "This is typical of the police. They do anything they can get away with, take it to court and get a slap on the wrist."
Instruments of Crime
About 75 puppeteers were arrested Tuesday evening after a dramatic, televised standoff with police who claimed that the puppeteers were keeping "instruments of crime" inside their warehouse headquarters at 41st Street and Haverford Avenue. Three more puppeteers were arrested for trying to block a garbage truck when authorities began destroying the puppets Wednesday morning.
Ed McLaughlin, Commissioner of the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, said he didn't know the specific fire or health code violations in the building.
"We're just taking the trash out," he said. "We're responding to a police request."
Police cordoned off Haverford Avenue from 41st to 42nd streets with yellow tape. Neighborhood residents expressed shock at the crackdown.
"So they think this was a terrorist group and this was their clubhouse?" said Mike Davis, a lifelong resident of West Philadelphia. "That's crazy!"
Linda Harris, 53, lives one block from the warehouse. On Tuesday night, she gave three cases of water to dehydrated protesters who had been drumming and dancing in the street. She returned Wednesday to see what the police were doing.
"That's sick. I can't believe it," she said. "They're right up the street from a couple of crack houses and they're worried about the puppets. We can't even begin to think how they think."
Ronnie Cannady, a worker for Licenses and Inspections, was dismayed at having to destroy the puppets.
"I felt real bad," he said. "I could see they must have taken a lot of time to make those puppets. They musta been fighting for a cause they believe in."
Captain John Hargraves of the 39th Precinct helped oversee Wednesday's operations. He was more serene about his work.
"I don't have any feelings," he said. "I'm a professional."
"Our Clear Messages Were Being Destroyed"
While the cleanup crew was hauling away the last of the wreckage of the puppets, supporters of the 432 people arrested during Tuesday's protest against the criminal justice system gathered in Franklin Park at 8th and Vine streets across from police headquarters. The "Goat with a Vote" puppet troupe put on a performance in the middle of the park. Their eight goat masks were the only survivors from what activists sadly dubbed "The Great Puppet Massacre". One of the goats, Morgan FitzPatrick of Philadelphia, said the police had deliberately targeted the puppets, many of which were themed on criminal justice issues.
"That was our voice," he said. "Yesterday when the media was saying there was no clear message, that's because our clear messages were being destroyed."
Jodi Netzer of the Ministry of Puppetganda said she had been in contact with eight of the 30 female "puppetistas" who were in custody. She said the eight women were dehydrated, had not been fed since morning, and were holding council about whether to give their fingerprints and move onto a regular jail cell that had water.
Netzer said that guards had confiscated signs and puppets that the prisoners made out of ice cream wrappers and other trash they found in the jail.
Note: This story originally appeared in the August 3, 2000 edition of the Unconvention as "Police Crush Puppets"