It’s 10:35 p.m., Thursday, September 21, 2023.
The intersection in front of Kensington’s Tioga Station is still busy, though some of the cars slow down, reading the signs attached to an EZ-Up tent. Jamal Johnson sits alone, handing out literature to anyone who passes by.
Johnson is serving as guardian of the base for “Operation Hug the Block,” a neighborhood watch program. By the time it concludes on Election Day, Operation Hug the Block volunteers will have patrolled 77 locations in Philly’s hardest-hit areas. The project is a collaboration between Johnson’s Stop Killing Us (SKU) and Philly TRUCE.
Jamal Johnson, Emmanuel Bussie, and other Operation Hug the Block volunteers sit at their base tent, across the street from Kensington’s Tioga Station. (Sam Searles/WHYY)
Around the corner, a call and response gets louder: “Operation hug the block!” “Operation hug the block!” “It’s the peace patrol!” “It’s the peace patrol!” Six men emerge, wearing lime green visibility vests over t-shirts and hoodies. There’s laughter during some brief ribbing about the proper amount of patrol time, and Johnson is reminded that he’s not in the Marines anymore, even though he acts like a drill sergeant.
A sign in front of Operation Hug the Block’s base tent. (Sam Searles/WHYY)
The man with the megaphone is Emmanuel Bussie. “I’m trying to lead by example,” he explains. “There’s no way that we can stop the violence [or] curb the violence in an entire city. But what we can do is set the tone, to set an example [for] what it can take to actually turn this violent thing around.”