Occupy Philadelphia

Philadelphia (Fall 2011)

On the Monday morning I visited, the mood at Occupy Philadelphia  was very different than OWS.  The occupiers in Philly were occupying Dilworth Plaza with some 100 or 150 tents that did not fully cover the area. There was plenty of open space. The dense honeycomb quality of Zuccotti Square was missing.  But despite the extra space, the encampment in Philadelphia felt filthy and disorganized.  As I walked into the encampment, the first sign I saw said: Don’t Pee Where You Sleep, it’s Disgusting.  But the sign had not done its job; throughout the occupation there was a pervasive smell of urine and excrement.

As I walked through the encampment, I saw a few of the Mayor’s people talking and I walked up and joined them. Mayor Nutter had been in the battle of publicity between the City and the occupiers. At first it had all been love and kisses. Mayor Nutter sympathized with the occupiers concerns. He was fighting for them himself.  But the relationship had become very strained over the last six weeks and now his people seemed disgusted with the occupation. One said, “If we let the health or fire department in here, they would close this place down in a second. Don’t go downstairs, its all full of crap.”

Beyond the filth there was much harder edge in Philly than at Zucotti Square. There were a lot of middle aged and older men that looked as if they had been sleeping rough for years.  I couldn’t distinguish them from the homeless that slept around City Hall and on the Parkway before Philadelphia was occupied.  And day-to-day life in the occupation was not a Woodstock of Peace Love and Music. The morning papers that day reported that the police were investigating a rape in one of the tents of Occupy Philadelphia.

I asked asked one of the Mayor’s people about that.  I said, “How do you investigate a rape in a city of tents?”

He didn’t see that as a particular problem. “The Police responded right away and they arrested the alleged perpetrator.” But he wasn’t sure that it was a rape.  He said, “I think it was just a trick that wasn’t paid for.”

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John had been occupying Philadelphia for 7 weeks. He was a serious fellow wearing a plaid lumber jacket and sitting furiously on a lawn chair on the outskirts of the encampment.  He was from Chicago but he had lived in Philadelphia since 1997.  He had been homeless for a long stretch of that time and had come to OP to air his views.  He was frustrated that no one at Occupy Philadelphia was much interested in listening to him.  He had two big ideas.  One was that the homeless in Philadelphia should be recruited to take over abandoned and derelict property and given the tools to rebuild them.  Second was that areas of the City where there were a high degree of abandonment should be designated as empowerment zones and people given special funding to rebuild.

I didn’t think his ideas were fully baked, but they were no worse than most of the ideas that had been driving Philadelphia’s governmental response to urban abandonment for the last 30 years.  The ideas certainly weren’t so lunatic that they couldn’t be discussed.  He was frustrated and depressed that he couldn’t get his fellow occupiers to listen. I wondered why he was having so much trouble getting an audience. Not 50 yards from where he was sitting there was a sign that identified various Working Groups:

It seemed to me as if his issues would fall within #10 Homeless Outreach or #23 Occupy Housing Committee. But I couldn’t criticize Occupy Philadelphia on that score. Such is the way with Working Groups everywhere; you can’t always get your issues addressed.

*   *   *

You could tell a confrontation was brewing.  The City had planned a $50 million upgrade to Dilworth Plaza, an uninspired large open area on the apron of City Hall, to create an urban park.  The project was being spearheaded by Paul Levy, the head of the Center City District, and a man with a record of successful urban projects.  When Occupy Philadelphia got the permit for their encampment on Dilworth Plaza, the permit acknowledged that the group would have to leave to accommodate the construction project when it was ready to begin.  Now, after 7 weeks of occupation, the construction project was at hand and the occupiers had to decide if they would go.

The City told OP that it should begin to make preparations to move because the project was imminent.  It offered to let the occupiers move to a space cattycorner to Dilworth Plaza, across from the Masonic Temple.  That square is smaller, less visible and if I am not mistaken has a major portion below grade.  Nevertheless it is a prominent location within throwing distance of Dilworth Plaza.

Occupy Philadelphia makes decisions by way of  “direct democracy” in which the people – the people! – talk an issue through to conclusion.  The people involved are referred to as the General Assembly. The City had been negotiating with OP for several weeks. At first everything was smooth and the relationship between the City and OP was a model. Mayor Nutter famously walked among the occupiers at 3 in the morning exchanging views on the problems of corporate greed and predatory lending and homeowner foreclosure.

But things have changed. Those people who appeared for the discussion at the General Assembly on the topic of relocation – at least according to the City – are a “different group” than the ones that Mayor Nutter walked among when Occupy Philadelphia first encamped in Dilworth Plaza.  According the Mayor, the City “needs to re-evaluate its relationship with this changed group.”

The Mayor won re-election this month and if one of his goals was to avoid confrontation with the group until after his re-election, he has been successful. There is good reason to think that a Philadelphia mayor would want to avoid confrontation with a protest group. Mayors Rizzo and Goode each decided to clear the urban cult known as MOVE from its houses in West Philadelphia, and each decision ended in disaster.  In Rizzo’s case, a police officer was killed. In Goode’s case, the City dropped an “incendiary device” from a police helicopter on the top of the Move compound.  The fire that resulted burned down 60 houses. Some 13 people were killed, including children living in the house.  With that precedent, Mayor Nutter was certainly right to be cautious. But now his election is over and the mood has changed and you could tell that something was coming.

*   *   *

The General Assembly took up debate on two resolutions. One was to relocate to Thomas Paine Square across the street from Dilworth Plaza. The other was to expand to Thomas Paine Square without abandoning a presence at Dilworth Plaza. The later resolution passed. There was a core of OP that wanted a confrontation with the City, with the police, with Mayor Nutter. They wanted OP members to be arrested. They wanted the attention that would be drawn to the movement. They wanted the anticipated sympathetic press coverage. They wanted those images from the civil rights movement that are still graven in the national mind: the fire hoses in Birmingham, Martin Luther King marching on Washington – to be the images from Occupy Philadelphia. They wanted the occupy movement to grow. They wanted scale. And what better way to scale up than to provoke a fight with the police force that, in the national mind, was most closely associated with the mission of keeping the downtrodden, downtrodden.

There was another wing in the General Assembly. This group believed that a fight over Dilworth Plaza would be nothing more than a fight in defense of camping, not the big ideas that shaped the movement. But that argument didn’t win the day. An obstacle to success was the realization that regardless of how the General Assembly voted, some occupiers were going to keep on occupying Dilworth Plaza. And since they were going to do that – after all, it was never a part of the Occupying vision that the General Assembly would be able to compel an individual to follow its plan – did it really make sense to split the group and leave everyone weaker?

*          *          *

A few weeks earlier I had been in Philadelphia for a meeting. I was early and before going into the Municipal Services Building I walked over to see what were then the beginnings of the occupation. There may have been 30 or 40 occupiers at that point and the occupation was a thin, bedraggled operation. As threadbare as OP was, I was struck by the fact that the Philadelphia Police were there in force. Across South Penn Square from Dilworth Plaza, on the apron in front of MSB, there were 30 or 40 police bicycles in an orderly row. An equal number of police were clustered together in front of the bicycles, getting briefed from by police captain. The ratio of police to occupiers seemed high, but the Police did not provoke confrontation while I was there.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that the bicycles were lined up directly in front of the statue of former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor, Frank Rizzo. The same Rizzo who had been photographed in a tuxedo with a police nightstick stuffed into his cumber bund like a sword.  The 10-foot high statute captures Rizzo with his hand reaching out, palm up, in a sort of benevolent wave. On normal days, the gesture seems a perpetual but harmless acknowledgement of the support of Rizzo’s supporters; today it seems like a benediction for police officers set to ride into battle.

– Jay Duret


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