Has Center City become a police state for the Pope?
Two weeks ago, the city attempted to rebrand the security zone for Pope Francis' visit by giving it a new name, the welcome-sounding "Francis Festival Grounds."
But since the security boxes went into effect Friday morning, the atmosphere has felt far from festive. On any given street in Center City you can make out more than half a dozen security agencies — agents from the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and of course, droves of our local Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) and SEPTA Transit Police officers. The U.S. Coast Guard mans a turret on the Schyukill. Bomb-sniffing dogs sit in the back seats of federal SUVS. Highway patrol officers from neighboring Pennsylvania cities circle the area on motorcycles.
There are 22 security checkpoints between the two security zones on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Independence Mall (see this map), each one equipped with several magnetometers. Once you pass through the screening, the only cars you'll see are official vehicles.
Many observers on social media have pointed out that law enforcement officials seem to outnumber civilians on the streets. Other media outlets have already questioned whether or not Philadelphia has entered a temporary "police state." Local food service workers reporting to work early Friday morning said that they encountered difficulties at the security checkpoints: an argument over a coffee thermos, questions about prescription medication. TSA officers are routinely taking pictures with reporters' and tourists' cameras to make sure that they are in fact cameras. (Here's a full list of things you can't bring into either of the event zones.)
Of course, there's nothing wrong with having a lot of security. But it's also natural that some are taken aback. Less than 24 hours before the Pope's arrival, the crowds aren't nearly as large as the early predictions suggested, not to mention that the majority of Center City offices are closed today. As a result, even the areas at the center of the action feel eerily empty. But more than anything, this is the most high-profile event the city put on in recent history, one that has, overnight, brought the everyday realities of a post-9/11 world to our doorstep.
Some photos of the new and strange world of Center City on Friday:
A counter terrorism task force on the median of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
Clear plastic backpacks make getting through checkpoints much easier. (Photo: Yesid Vargas/AL DÍA News)
Bomb squad. (Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
Early Friday morning, two Philadelphia police officers chat in front of an empty security checkpoint. (Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
Eight-foot high fences started going up earlier this week. (Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
One of the busier checkpoints on North Broad Street. (Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
This reporter counted over 50 security personnel at several different checkpoints. (Photo: Yesid Vargas/AL DÍA News)
A TSA officer took a photo with this reporter's camera at one one of the checkpoints. (Photo: Unknown/Transportation Security Administration)
More police officers. (Photo: Yesid Vargas/AL DÍA News)
(Photo: Yesid Vargas/AL DÍA News)
(Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)
(Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News)