My worst fear as I hopped off the SEPTA West Trenton line near City Hall is that the city where our Bill of Rights was created and delivered to “We the People” would also be the city where those same rights were withdrawn from us through suppressive tactics and outright shameful acts of enforcement. As I observed the Occupy Philadelphia Movement on day one from 9:00AM to 11:45PM, those concerns were unjustified. If both sides continue constructive dialogue and open communication, along with positive peaceful actions, no concerns are warranted.
News of what was happening in New York City was already making headlines. As typical of our 24 hour “conflictionator” (Jon Stewart’s word) cable news, it took some NYPD chiefs overdosed on testosterone to bring out the media. As of the time of this writing, I am proud to say no Philadelphia occupiers have been pepper sprayed or arrested during days one through four. Day five looks hopeful for that positive streak to continue. Not to say some idiot will force Philadelphia police to discharge their duties, but the real test will be how those duties are discharged.
We already have heard false statements by so called ‘experts’ about how this protest is leaderless, unorganized and nothing but a bunch of 20 something whites suburbanites who are spoiled and have nothing better to do. Sound familiar? It should if you are a baby boomer in the streets of the 1960’s and 1970’s fighting peacefully to end American racial inequality and an unjust war. If not, ask your parents/grandparents if they heard that description before. My experience on day one was nothing of the sort. What looks as leaderless is a form of democracy not purely practiced since ancient Greece. What looks disorganized is a group that actually has their own security, communications, medical care system, twice a day democratic gatherings, legal protection services and open and respectful dialogue, even when there is dissent. What is pronounced as just one age group and ethnicity is really a diverse group both chronologically and ethnically. If you believe that only the 20 something folks are making a ruckus, you should meet the two World War II veterans who were there.
It was quiet in Philadelphia Center City area around 8:10AM on Thursday, October 6, 2011. The only buzz generating from commuters were the Phillies playoff push and the new Flyers season about to commence later that evening. When I got to City Hall around 8:40 AM, some members of the local unions were mulling around and a couple of baby boomers were holding a banner stating “Welcome Occupy Philadelphia”. Eyes wondering, one noticed a heavy police presence along Market Street, Broad Street, and across the street at the State Office Building, where the bronzed image of Frank Rizzo has a constant eyeball on City Hall with a permanent “How You Doin’ ” hand wave. The big four news outlets were already marking their media turf and an older black gentleman was holding court with anxious interviewers as he demanded a “New Marshall Plan for America”.
Crowds started to grow when separate groups marched from different locations to City Hall. While waiting for the major proportion of the occupiers to arrive, I had an interesting conversation with a couple veterans from the pre-Vietnam era and got an old fashion oral history on what it was like to be a Marine during the Cuban Missile crisis. After that was a chat with three students from the Philadelphia Art Institute. Within the peripheral view are many plain clothes officers, yet their posture appeared relaxed. For what Eric Cantor has described as a ‘mob’, the occupy group has a coordinated method of crowd communication called the “people’s mic.” One person yells “MIC CHECK”; the crowd responds in kind and then repeats what the lead voice is saying. Even the couple in their 80’s calling for positive Medicare reform could hear the verbal message clearly. Signs and banners began to find their permanent home or prepared for mobile display in the art station where cardboard, poster board and all type of writing utensils were available; all donated. One area was set up as a ‘family area’ where smoking was prohibited and kids can play games that did not involve electronic gadgets. A library tent was unfolding with the librarian stocking donated books. People began to socialize and mingle discussing the issues confronting America. Two veterans were narrating the virtues of the Glass-Steagall Act and how it has been discarded to a small group of twentyish eager listeners. At this point, the Guy Hawkes mask count is up to three. The third one was counted when the person passed by a plain-clothed officer having coffee and conversation with a fortyish lady.
Noon arrived when the first general assembly gathered. For anyone who would like a clear understanding of the general assembly, consult a book on ancient Athens civilization where all citizens who could attend would gather in an open forum and discuss the issues Greeks most cared about. Everyone had equal voice and the facilitator was neither elected nor appointed, but volunteered. That is exactly what began to transpire at noon. The main issue of the day was to acquire or not acquire a permit to use the public area for the ongoing protest. Before that particular item was discussed, there was a general announcement and some background on how the Occupy Philadelphia came about. Some highlights are listed below;
- Organizers met with the Mayor, his cabinet and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. The idea was to insure that what was happening in New York City would not repeat itself. Mayor Michael Nutter supports the movement and even joked he was one of the 99%. Also, guidelines were communicated about participant’s behavior. If everyone stayed peaceful and not disrupt traffic, then the occupancy can go forward indefinite.
- Philadelphia has a special police until called Civil Affairs. They are the plain clothed officers observed earlier. The job of Civil Affairs is to insure order is maintained during any public civil events such as union picketing and protests.
- Occupy Philadelphia has set up a liaison between the occupiers and the City of Philadelphia.
- Not only was the National Lawyers Guild present to observe and insure all first amendment rights were protected, but the ACLU also had a presence.
So we have here a group of discontented citizens who took the initiative to communicate their intentions to the city, set up a pure democratic process, established a security team and formed a group of fellow protestors to keep lines of dialogue open with city officials. What part of disorganization can be truly cited?
Organizers planned a 4:00 PM march around City Hall and the city not only permitted this expression of foot and voice power, but provided police escort, cordoned off traffic around City Hall and the march movement was handled professionally by officers on bicycles and Civil Affairs walking alongside the protesting masses. Those cops on pedal power were initially from the city’s Narcotics Division. As with the general events of the day, no incidents of police on protestor or visa-versa disruptions were witnessed. Towards the end of the march, I spoke to members of the police on wheels and the consensus was that they supported the movement and the overall message. All they asked in return is everyone showed respect for property and did not obstruct traffic. If that was followed, everything would be fine.
As the day moves on, the movement is commencing to the settling in phase as tents appeared in the area. There is some creativeness being expressed by the most dedicated supporters as they rig their bedding and basic comforts that would render MacGyver an amateur. Moving to the center an impromptu band fuses jazz and folk as a fiftyish African-American man melodically plays his trumpet while two twentyish white males feverishly keep up on their acoustic guitars and percussionist of different backgrounds are playing whatever can elicit a beat and channeling their inner Stomp. During all of this, two items observed not being used; pepper spray and alcohol.
While walking and photo clicking the time swiftly moves to around 5:00 PM, and with that the misnamed rush hour traffic ritual begins around City Hall. Occupiers proudly display their dissenting artwork to passerby motorist. Some acknowledge with horns, but most go about their commute. The question at this point is simple. What will it take before these commuters realize that they are linked to the movement? As the occupiers either stand along 15th street or cross when permitted by the traffic light, Philadelphia Civil Affairs observe in stoic professionalism, only now and then reminding the crowd to stand back a little for their own safety.
Spoiling oneself with a local convenience store delicacy known as a Wawa ‘shortie’ is enjoyable enough, but to join others in the open air and having intelligent discourse and conversation makes that hoagie more enjoyable. As the last bite is consumed, a call for the night general assembly is made via the people’s mic. The main issue is whether to apply for a city permit to use the public space around City Hall. Mayor Nutter advocated securing the legal paperwork to insure the city. In a gesture of good faith with the Occupy movement, the mayor waived the fee and left the date range open ended. Without the permit, anyone can transverse the public area, including those who look to disrupt the overall occupation. We’re looking at you James O’Keefe or any other Andrew Breitbart lackey. The idea was that with the permit, the city enforcement officials can legally eject anyone who tries to usurp or downright crash the protest, if we so decide that action is necessary. Lively discussion during the assembly is not a synonym for partisan infighting and those who participated were adamant, but respectful. First in the assembly when an item is proposed, clarification questions are asked and answered. An ACLU lawyer present on behalf of the occupiers addressed all legal and principle concerns. She did a wonderful job to insure the crowd that first amendment rights existed, permit or not. Once clarifications are completed, the next round is where the participants can voice concerns. MY TURN! After three others spoke through the people’s mic my name was called. It was at this point that I went from observer to occupier. Not literally since graduate work still has to be completed, but in spirit nonetheless. “I FAVOR THE PERMIT. MY CONCERN IS (crowd repeats via people’s mic) THAT WITHOUT LEGAL POLICE PROTECTION (echoed again) ANY TEAPARTY A**HOLES CAN DISRUPT US (giggles as the crowd enjoyed this repeat).” After an informal straw poll of the crowd by hand raising, no clear majority was won either way. At this point, we were encouraged to break into groups and discuss or persuade others to our views or hear others counterpoints. Needless to say, when you have a diverse group of roughly 2000 humans with different views, the concerns and principles versus practicality and pragmatism will lead to lively discussion. Although it took an extra day, the proposal received a majority yea and the permit was acquired. Think about that, a loosely based group of individuals came together, around 600 (maybe more, people counting past 10 is not a personal strength) people sitting in on an assembly, and arrived at a critical decision in about two days. Compare that to the fact that our total US Congress is made of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators and it takes months just to rename a US Post Office.
Overall, everything went smoothly in the City of Brotherly Love. No arrests were made or, more importantly, none were of necessity. The people of this occupancy will generate a message, but do not accept a lack of uniform grievances to be a sign of disorganization. They will make a statement when all the members have had their say either through dialogue or in general assembly. This movement does not need slick high price spokes models; they have each other and a true democratic forum. All are welcome regardless of political persuasion; just do not show up with parroted talking points and not expect to be respectfully challenged.
Philadelphia is where America was born and later our civic freedoms enshrined. This city and the participants who occupy a corner of the civic hub should be the absolute finest model of peaceful civil redress for all others in the Occupy movement. Anything below this threshold is unacceptable.
Notes: Link to an article from Charles H. Ramsey, Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, sending message of support and cooperation to those involved with Occupy Philadelphia.