A New Chapter for Occupy Philadelphia

Occupy Philadelphia General Assembly debates whether to stay and expand or move entirely in the face of City Hall renovations.

On a frigid Friday night at Dilworth Plaza, Occupy Philadelphia faces a crucial vote that may well determine, at least, the short-term direction of the movement. Nearly 100 supporters mill about beneath the cold stone facade of City Hall as they wait for tonight’s General Assembly to convene. The proposal up for a vote tonight: whether to defy a city order to disperse ahead of planned renovations to City Hall’s apron, and hold ground, with the intention of falling back to Thomas Paine Plaza across the street. The second proposal, which would only come up for a vote if the above was voted down, would be to move camp entirely.

After over five hours of contentious debate and amendments, it is decided to simply stay with no plans for expansion to any space beyond Dilworth Plaza. Occupy Philadelphia as decided to dig in and face down a police force and administration that, until now, has worked to build a widely-heralded relationship with the occupation, a relationship heralded as anomalous because of the stark lack of police violence when compared to cities such as Oakland.

The reasons to stay or move are fairly sound on both sides:

We cannot allow the city to lead this movement by even indirectly naming locations to which we can relocate. The city’s cooperation is also largely built on political calculation and a desire to avoid the negative publicity other administrations receive when occupations are cracked down upon.

Or:

Staying at Dilworth simply to force a confrontation with an oddly gentle–at least with the occupation itself–police force and city administration won’t play well with the public, and makes us look like we’re standing in the way of construction jobs.

There are variations on these arguments, but those two are the crux of the debate.

An observation even a casual observer of this movement has noticed since it began on September 17th: nonviolently confronting a city administration and its police force can grow a movement. One need look no further than New York City, Boston and Oakland, where occupations have bravely held their ground to assert their First Amendment right to a redress of political grievances. In light of what these other occupations have accomplished in this vein, I think it’s important to highlight differences with those occupations and that of Occupy Philadelphia. The latter is a very different situation, and here’s why.

Unlike Philadelphia, most of the occupations mentioned above weren’t facing an administration that went out of its way to forge a working relationship with their respective encampments. The Philadelphia police department has been as civil as any police force to date since the movement began. And perhaps the defining difference with Philadelphia: the construction project. The city has been touting it as a job creator, and one that will employ union workers.

Political radicals have played a crucial role in getting the Occupy movement off the ground. After all, it was a small group of New York City anarchists, with supporting roles played by other parties, that spearheaded Occupy Wall Street. Without their nerve, others might have folded under intense police harassment. And these radicals had every right to challenge the NYPD: after all, without demanding their right to peacefully organize in a public space, the movement may not have taken off as it did.

But will Occupy Philadelphia’s defiance have the same effect?

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (@Michael_Nutter) held a press conference on Sunday, and it was important for a couple of reasons: the inaccuracies contained in his statement, as well as the tone and language which framed the argument the administration will use to justify clearing Dilworth Plaza. We will simply look at the language Nutter used in framing his argument against the occupation. False statements will be examined in a separate post following this one.

Mayor Nutter’s full statement on Sunday, November 13th:

“I’ve asked you here today because of my very great concern about dramatically deteriorating conditions on Day 39 in our engagement with Occupy Philly on City Hall apron, also known as Dilworth Plaza.

Occupy Philly has changed. We’re seeing serious health and safety issues playing out on almost a daily basis.

Occupy Philly is fractured with internal disagreement and disputes. The people of Occupy Philly have also changed and their intentions have changed…and all of this is not good for Philadelphia.

When I met with representatives of Occupy Philly on Wednesday Oct. 5 in my office, I made it clear to them
that the City would in fact protect their free speech rights and that we wanted to cooperate with them,
But I also said that the life of the City must go on: it is our daily business that must be conducted and not be impeded.

And I pointed out to them that day that there is a major project planned for Dilworth Plaza, that it’s been in works for a number of years now – a $50 million remake of Dilworth Plaza into an open, green, vibrant space…built by the 99 percent for the 99 percent.

And they told me that they would be peaceful, that they would not be disruptive, that they would obey the laws of the City of Philadelphia and that they would communicate with us regularly and they only wished to express their free speech rights.

On Oct. 11, the City sent a letter to Occupy Philly representatives, setting out a series of public safety and public health concerns that had quickly arisen, including the following: Combustible structures near historic City Hall; The lack of an emergency fire lane near the building; And a growing problem with litter, public urination, defecation and graffiti.

Unfortunately, Occupy Philly did not respond to our growing public safety and health concerns.

Finally, two weeks ago, on Sunday Oct. 30, a group of Occupy Philly leaders met with my staff and me at the American Friends Services Committee offices at 15th and Cherry. It was a cordial exchange of views and concerns.

The following day, the City of Philadelphia sent an email to the group asking for weekly meetings, which we had discussed the previous day when we met, so that we could better understand each other’s issues, concerns and requirements, and so that we could work together to identify possible sites for relocation or even other programs and activities that we could work on mutually to address some of the concerns the group has had here in Philadelphia and across the nation.

We also described in that Oct. 30 meeting, two additional pending maintenance related projects: the removal of scaffolding from the tower area and a separate project requiring a scissor lift to make repairs to a number of City Hall windows that actually look down on the Occupy Philly location.

It’s now two weeks later, and there has been no response to our concerns … none whatsoever!

Instead, what’s abundantly clear now is that Occupy Philly is in violation of the terms of its permit, which requires it as an organization to observe our city ordinances.

Let me describe just a few of the issues:

Into this highly combustible environment – with tents and wooden pallets, bedding and waste – we know that some are using cooking stoves, candles, lanterns and of course there has been widespread smoking with the potential for fire and tragedy.

On Oct. 28, we had a small fire in that location in which a nylon tent went up in flames.

This past Friday, the Fire Marshal and a Haz-Mat team supervised the removal of a known propane tank that was Gerri-rigged to a small heater and a hurricane lamp. We are quite sure, unfortunately, that many more such units are hidden in tents throughout their encampment. In spite of the presence of porto-potties, the problem with public urination and defecation remains a significant health threat. In short, conditions there are unsanitary and that also includes food distribution.

Friday night, the Occupy Philly general assembly voted against moving from Dilworth Plaza:
Occupy Philly is now purposely standing in the way of a nearly 1,000 jobs for Philadelphians at a time of high unemployment. They are blocking Philadelphians from taking care of their families.

We’ve seen the rise of new groups as a part of this movement like the Radical Caucus, which is bent on civil disobedience and disrupting city operations; Many of the people that we talked to in the beginning of this event and activity are now gone. They are no longer on the site. They are no longer on the scene. And Occupy Philly has refused to engage in active, regular discussions with us. This change in behavior is no accident. It is a direct result of the fact that this movement has changed and the people have changed.

In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of thefts and assaults in the Occupy Philly space. In addition, between Oct. 6 and Nov. 11, there have been 15 EMS runs related to the Occupy Philly site.

And then last night shortly before 8 pm, a woman reported an alleged sexual assault in one of the tents. This incident is also under investigation.

These conditions are intolerable. Occupy Philly is not acting in good faith, and it’s now abundantly clear that on many levels this group is violating a range of city ordinances and the terms of their permit.

Of necessity, we are now at a critical point where we must reevaluate out entire relationship with this very changed group.

Occupy Philly has changed, so we must change our relationship with them – things have changed.

Very soon, we must prepare for the renovation project of windows in City Hall on the west side. It is a project that is vital to the safety of our city employees and Occupy Philly members who are directly below. It will require a number of tents and structures to move.

We do not seek confrontation with Occupy Philly. As a matter of fact, I have expressed almost every day my very strong belief in many of the issues and concerns that the original Occupy Philly individuals that I met with have raised: Issues related to unemployment, poverty, bank lending, homelessness, the rights of people to express themselves.

Again, we do not seek confrontation with Occupy Philly. We prefer cooperation but these issues of public health and public safety must be addressed, and addressed immediately.

Misconduct is not about free speech, and the behavior we’re now seeing is running squarely into the needs of our City government that also represents the very real 99 percent. As Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, I represent the 99 percent also.

Our responsibility is bigger than Occupy Philly, our responsibility is to all of the citizens, all of our public employees, to the entire city and the region.

And so for all the reasons I’ve enumerated including public safety concerns, I have asked Police Commissioner Ramsey to increase the uniform police patrol in the area where Occupy Philly is as well as establish structured and strategic positioning and deployment of officers on a regular basis in that location as well.”

The administration has begun to build a case against Occupy Philadelphia. Nutter is also deftly using the language of the Occupy movement, in addition to his administration’s record of cooperation with the encampment, to create a rift between the occupation and the public. And at this point, the Nutter administration has the upper-hand, framing the encampment as standing in the way of construction that would benefit “the 99%”, ignoring safety concerns and even attempting to drive a wedge between this so-called “Radical Caucus” and the rest of the occupation. This is Nutter’s fight to lose at this point, and I’m concerned that the result of Friday’s vote will be problematic for the occupation. Just imagine how much more difficult it would have been for the administration and police to shut down the occupation, had they voted instead to occupy an abandoned school or clinic closed by budget cuts.

At this moment, it is difficult to see why staying at Dilworth Plaza is a good strategy.

The Project is posting a counter-point to Nutter’s press conference, which will be posted very shortly.

The Project will continue to bring you reports and editorials on the #Occupy movement, with emphasis on events from @OccupyPhilly. If you have photos, writing, artwork or music with a focus on the Occupy movement or with protest culture in general, don’t hesitate to send it to DGP. We’d love to share it with the world. Thanks so much for your continued support and and if you’re new to the Project, welcome!

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