Category Archives: News/Report

Standing up to the Richest Man in the World

Why is an international coalition of activists and business interests taking on a respected university – and one of the most powerful men in the world?

A protester outside George Washington University. Photo: Dustin Slaughter

An honorable degree?

“I am concerned that George Washington University – an American icon – is sending the wrong message to Mexicans wanting to come to this country to work hard and build a life,” Jeffrey Brewer, an Occupy D.C. Protester, says to me.

“What are George Washington University’s values? Do they want to hold up exploitation as a legitimate business model?” he adds.

About 30 protesters (a mix of Occupy participants as well as members of a coalition called Two Countries, One Voice) are outside GW University posing this question to the institution on May 11th, 2012, while a handful meet with administrators inside. Their stated goal is convincing the university to cancel a decision to give an honorary degree to Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, at their May 20th commencement ceremony.

Their questions and anger are valid, considering that this esteemed institution wants to honor a tycoon accused of overcharging poor and working class Mexicans to the tune of $6 billion per year in cell and landline fees. Slim has a net worth of $69 billion dollars.

Slim has amassed this unimaginable wealth by owning 90% of Mexico’s telecommunication services and over 220 companies under the corporate behemoth Grupo Carso (basically giving Slim a 7% stake in Mexico’s GDP.)

In a country where the average citizen earns $15 per day and the per capita income is a little over $14,000 a year, one might wonder what George Washington University sees in this man to bestow an honorary degree.

The university touts Slim’s philanthropy as sufficient cause for honoring him. Problematic, however, is the fact that alleged philanthropic endeavors, such as the Fundación Carlos Slim Helú, are not required by Mexican law to publish financial information, so there is no way to confirm how much of his wealth has actually gone to improving the lives of people in Mexico. Carlos Slim has been publicly critical of charitable giving from billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

George Washington University has not responded to a request for comment.

A protester implores university officials to break ties with Carlos Slim. Photo: Dustin Slaughter

Two Peoples United

“The first part of the plan is to force the university to sever ties with Slim,” Two Countries, One Voice organizer David Abrams tells me on the car ride over to the rally, “although I doubt they’re going to cancel his commencement invite. After that, we begin targeting American industries who maintain business relationships with him,” including calls for boycotts which he and others plan on carrying on long after the May 20th event. According to him, there may be hunger strikes involved too.

Companies in which Slim has stakes include Apple, Citigroup, and even the New York Times – which borrowed $240 million from him at a whopping 14% interest rate.

What does it take to stand up to the wealthiest man in the world? This coalition may have a fighting chance. The group is composed of a wide range of organizations, such as Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica (COFEM) and Nevada’s Latin Chamber of Commerce. It is worth noting that the Chamber’s membership has some heavy hitters on its board, and may have commercial interests in any successful outcome.

Abrams’s work on the ground has also brought members of Occupy Wall Street into the fold, he tells me. “It was a pretty easy sell,” he says of the effort. “After all, Carlos Slim IS the 1%.”

Check out Salon writer Adam Clarke Estes’ comprehensive background on Carlos Slim from March 8th, 2011.

Please subscribe to the Project and follow @DustinSlaughter on Twitter for live NATO protest updates from Chicago starting next weekend.


The Captain, the Commissioner, and the Brotherhood

Retired Captain Ray Lewis at Philadelphia City Hall, 16 February 2012. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis is in town for a day-long event focusing on First Amendment issues, including corporate consolidation of the media, organized by Occupy Philadelphia. One reason for his visit?

“I will not idly stand by while law enforcement is administered only to the poor and disenfranchised while the rich flaunt their immunity,” he says, standing next to a monument with the First Amendment etched in stone.

It’s on this blisteringly-cold afternoon when reports of veiled threats from the Philadelphia police department begin to trickle in: Lewis may be arrested for wearing his uniform if he leaves Independence Mall and marches through Center City.

Lewis decides “to call the city’s bluff.” Leaving the temporary encampment at the Mall, he begins walking with a small group towards that afternoon’s target – the towering Comcast Center, a corporation which refuses to include Al-Jazeera English (despite the 24-hour news channel winning multiple awards) – into their programming, instead planning to add a new P-Diddy music channel to their lineup.

I catch up with him as he heads up Market Street. He has a firm handshake and a hard, yet calm gaze when he’s not wearing his sunglasses. An elderly Asian woman pokes her head out of a storefront to watch this tall uniformed man carrying a protest sign.

It is this power – albeit a different power that one in a police uniform usually wields – that likely has the city’s police commissioner angry at the outspoken retired officer, while giving fuel to a somewhat subdued peoples’ movement during the winter.

“It’s like a river. I don’t know where it’s headed, but I’m going to remain on the raft,” Lewis says of the Occupy movement, for which he was arrested in Lower Manhattan during an act of civil disobedience.

Downplaying his arrest, he said he was inspired by “those kids willing to sacrifice their comfort,” to rail against corporate America, which is the principal benefactor of his ire.

Lewis feels that civil disobedience is necessary because it “draws attention” to grievances easily glossed over by mere picketing.

It was indeed civil disobedience which, Lewis asserts, allowed Commissioner Ramsey to achieve the position as Philadelphia’s top cop – because of the civil rights movement. It is also civil disobedience that Ramsey essentially accuses the former captain of committing by demonstrating in uniform.

There is one problem with that accusation, however.

In a press release included in a packet Lewis assembled for curious onlookers – as well as the media – he cites the statute which Ramsey is accusing him of violating:

Section #4912 Impersonating a Public Servant – Falsely pretending to hold a position in the public service with intent to induce another to submit to such a pretended official authority or otherwise to act in reliance upon that pretense to his prejudice.

Lewis also includes in the press release that, after contacting the Philadelphia police department’s Attorney Armando Brigandi on November 10th, 2011 about his intention to protest in uniform, Brigandi “fully concurred that Section #4912 did NOT pertain to my intended action, nor would I be violating any other laws,” so long as Lewis “did not express an articulable intent and act of having legal law enforcement power.”

Lewis isn’t just being threatened by Ramsey, however.

The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police’s board of directors voted unanimously on a motion to potentially take away Lewis’ pension.

FOP President John McNesby. Photo from Philly.com

FOP President John McNesby has publicly stated: “I champion him for going up there and pleading his case, but he shouldn’t have done it in a police uniform. When he put the freaking uniform on is when he crossed the fucking line.”

McNesby goes on to say that if were up to him, Lewis “would be booted from the FOP and lose his retirement benefits.”

These are the same police administrators who allowed Tyrone Wiggins, an officer convicted of raping a 13 year old girl, to keep his pension until August of 2011 – 9 years.

After the protesters – including Lewis – return to Independence Mall by day’s end, the Philadelphia Police Department issues a new statement: They will be taking a “hands-off” approach to Ray Lewis and his uniform. It’s certainly a radically different stance than the one issued by Commissioner Ramsey before Lewis returned to Philadelphia, which said the department was “prepared to take any and all necessary actions” to protect the Philadelphia police insignia.

In a city where police administrators pick and choose which officers receive threats and punishments, and where figures in the Nutter administration may have waded into ethically murky waters in dealing with early Occupy Philadelphia for the sake of political expediency, sometimes it takes one person to just step off the curb, and call their bluff.


Is It Time to Occupy Big Media?


“Between the public sector and the private sector, we have wreaked untold havoc on the media environment.”

These aren’t the words of a progressive media advocate such as University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney or The Nation’s John Nichols, but of ex-FCC commissioner Michael Copps in January. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Copps attributes his claim to “the abdication of public interest responsibility by the FCC” over the last 30 years and their failure to enforce public interest guidelines and a stronger focus on news.

Here’s another example of how the FCC has failed in their responsibility to the public good: In 1995, the FCC forbade companies ownership of more than 40 stations. Clear Channel Communications now owns over 1,500. This rate of consolidation clearly shows no sign of slowing.

The closing of news rooms and the number of reporters on the street instead of the beat goes on as the corporate state continues its relentless and undemocratic consolidation of America’s media landscape. Layoffs continue despite a number of companies like McClatchy posting a 21% profit margin, according to the book The Death and Life of American Journalism. McClatchy fired a third of their newsroom staff in 2008.

Rupert Murdoch. Photo: BornRich.com

“25 or 30 years ago, only 50 companies controlled more than half of what we see and hear every single day. Now, that 50 – which was alarming enough – has shrunk to six or even five,” says Johnathan Lawson, the co-founder of Reclaim the Media. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp owns the top newspaper on three continents: The Wall Street Journal, The Sun, and The Australian. According to a 2008 GAO report, the company was operating over 150 subsidiaries in off-shore tax havens. How much of those subsidiary holdings could have gone to funding NPR, or towards community initiatives to help expand minority media in communities?

The assault on our airwaves first began in earnest in 1980, when “the FCC did away with public interest guidelines for broadcast television licenses, and the renewal period went from three to eight years,” according to Copps. Now all a broadcaster has to do is “mail in a postcard” and their license is renewed, because the FCC – against the very reason it was created – has watered down attempts to ensure that the public’s airwaves are by-and-large for the public good.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Photo: Politico.com

Michael Powell (son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell), who was the head of the FCC in 2003, attempted to eliminate 30 year-old rules that prohibited any television network from reaching more than 35% of the national population. These rules were, in part, created to prevent the homogenization of news and to ensure that there was an attempt at quality local coverage. Predictably, the broadcast industry spent $249 million attempting to convince the federal government to allow new rules which would expand that limit to 45% of the public. And they won.

Fast forward to 2006: the FCC passed rules “which allowed broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership in the top 20 markets,” as Katy Bachman wrote in AdWeek. “The last thing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski [who became the FCC head in 2009] wants to talk about are the media ownership rules.”

A media system dominated by such a narrow coterie of owners has a direct impact on the quality of news presented to the public – affecting a diversity of viewpoints as well as the depth of coverage on issues such as corporate greed, poverty, corruption, racism, climate change and a host of other topics that an electorate needs to know in order to make educated decisions which directly affect their lives.

One major casualty of corporate domination of news is investigative journalism. Be it in print or in broadcast news, this time-intensive and not always profitable aspect of news is crucial to a healthy democracy. One need only look, for instance, at the media debacle of the Iraq War to see how the corporate state perverts information consumed by Americans. The first Gulf War was a huge boon for corporations like GE, which turned nightly news into “a media hardware show,” as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! stated. GE had a significant stake in the production of parts for many of the weapons in the Persian Gulf war.

The shrinking of diverse views on war was evidenced by the firing of MSNBC host Phil Donahue in February of 2003. He approached the invasion from a critical perspective and maintained the highest rated show on that network. The killing off of diversity is also a perfect example of how corporate media perpetuates the concept of “just” wars to increase profits, as GE’s role in the Persian Gulf war and the reporting on that war and Operation Iraqi Freedom demonstrate.

Picture: GunStreetGirl.tumblr.com

Media consolidation also plays a profound role in how our society prioritizes values, from self-esteem to consumerism. “It gives them [corporate media] a great deal of influence over how our culture thinks about itself,” points out author and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore.  The deluge of advertising, for instance, which takes up a lot of broadcasting and radio, certainly has an impact on shopping habits as well as more serious issues like body-image.

Enter Occupy Wall Street. The movement has set its sights on corporations and the elite who continue without apology to commodify health care, public education, and other vital necessities, and has subsequently kicked issues like income inequality and corporate greed back into the national conversation. Some even argue that President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech carried a hint of the spirit of the movement, which isn’t surprising in an election year.

How would corporate media respond to civil disobedience in their lobbies? What would happen if a group of protesters went to a news station and demanded a revoking of that outlet’s license? This is what happened in the WLBT case, when civil rights activists challenged a racist broadcaster and ultimately forced a judge to pull the station’s license for not serving the public interest.

If the people are going to stand up to big banks and corporations for wrecking our economy and destroying our environment, the theft of our airwaves and newspapers must not be ignored.  As each occupation tackles issues local to their cities and towns – such as police brutality in minority communities – directly challenging broadcasters and newspapers through sit-ins or other creative tactics to cover issues that aren’t properly covered by major media could be a good start. But that would just be the beginning.

One Occupy Philadelphia protester sums it up best:

“It’s bullshit that our country’s main source of news is owned by a few large corporations that have a GLARING conflict of interest in providing us with accurate, honest information.  They have an agenda both in downsizing news rooms as well as promoting certain political views.  It’s time for us to hold them to account and demand a true separation of corporation and government, both in the running of and in the reporting of.”


Walking the Walk: Occupy Philadelphia Forges Ahead with a Free University

Occupy Philadelphia's Free University Working Group. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

In a cafe mere blocks from posh Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, 25 or so activists assemble to chart a new course for the Occupy Philadelphia movement. It’s an idea that was just as subversive some 50 years ago as it is today, and perhaps more so, given the deepening crisis facing primary and higher education.

The first Free University of Philadelphia working group meeting has convened, and it is composed of a broad cross-section of people: professors from Bryn Mawr, Villanova, and Princeton; a homeless, unemployed construction worker; citizen journalists; and of course, activists who have committed themselves to the movement here since it began here in October.

As Larry Swetman, an activist and one of several behind Occupy Philadelphia’s Free University initiative tells me:

“When I got the chance to go to college I realized the empowering nature of education, and how it can change everything. It can make your life and it can also break it. I come from the poverty mindset, and those who haven’t had a chance to be educated, I can’t stand for that anymore. I have to educate people so they can better themselves.”

Larry Swetman. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Many here who want to teach have become disillusioned with how education has shifted to a commercialized enterprise–charter schools and for-profit colleges–and are upset that rising tuition and school closures have shut out an increasing number of people from a chance to better their minds.

Others, like Jacob Russell, who is a published author and artist, feel that it is necessary to “get rid of the gatekeepers of literature and integrate the arts into all aspects of life.”

Initial courses such as comparative literature, creative writing, race and gender studies, physics and even a course on how to change car oil have all been discussed. The idea is to continue building course offerings if the idea grows in popularity and attracts more teachers.

Still others here just want to help build a fresh way of learning, a horizontal model that would take a page from the non-hierarchical General Assembly that the Occupy movement has become known for, and in so doing, introduce new students to the process of direct democracy.

How this would translate into the classroom remains to be seen.

One aspect of this endeavor that is more certain, however, is the venue where the university might be based: the Elkins Estate. This sprawling property was once the home of William L. Elkins. According to the estate’s website:

“Elkins was largely responsible for the production of the first gasoline ever refined from petroleum at Philadelphia’s Monument Oil Works, which was established and operated by Elkins until his partnership with John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company in 1875.”

Elkins Estate

The irony of nurturing an idea with anti-capitalist overtones in a space where oil barons once rubbed elbows is certainly not lost on this group. The arrangement to use the estate as a venue has not been finalized, however, and a rotating list of locations is under consideration – including Rittenhouse Square.

Other occupations are taking up the idea too, including Occupy Berkeley. The concept of a free university seems like a natural outgrowth of this movement. The encampments, despite the national crackdown, are meant to be a microcosm of what occupiers want the world to be.

What’s that saying that’s so often shouted by protesters nowadays? Oh, that’s right: “You can’t evict an idea.”


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!


Is Occupy Philadelphia Facing a Crossroads?

Occupy Philadelphia Sit-in at police headquarters. October 23rd, 2011

The march starts off right on schedule. A group of 40 or so protesters stage under the imposing shadow of City Hall at Occupy Philadelphia on October 23rd, and then cross 15th Street, winding through Center City, repeatedly chanting: “It’s a reality! Stop police brutality!” They then take the street, careful of oncoming traffic as they lock arms and maintain their path within the oncoming lane. Philadelphia Police cars escort them through the streets. Onlookers pop out of store fronts and pedestrians stop mid-stroll to record the small, vocal group as they move up Market Street past the Convention Center through Chinatown.

An Occupy Philadelphia group marches through Chinatown. October 23rd, 2011

Their purpose, eventually released in a statement later that evening, is to highlight the issue of police brutality. Protesters tell personal stories of police malfeasance: one girl talks about how she was essentially ignored by officers after she went to a police station to report that she had been sexually assaulted. Another woman, who had watched a late night news report on the protest, stops by to share another heart-wrenching story about Philadelphia police officers beating up her grandmother and son, and after realizing that they had entered the wrong house, lied about the law enforcement agency with which they were affiliated.

The protesters also include in their statement the belief that police forces across the country are used to crush nonviolent occupations, and in so doing, protect the interests of the elite. 16 are later arrested the next morning after a night long sit-in on 8th Street in front of police headquarters. It marks the Philadelphia occupation’s first act of civil disobedience since it began in early October.

The march only garnered less than a quarter of the occupation’s population. This could be chalked up to the last-minute nature of the march, and that many on site were not aware that it was National Day of Action Against Police Brutality. A low turnout isn’t necessarily surprising when these factors are taken into consideration.

Yet the controversial action highlights something of a dilemma for the occupation here in the City of Brotherly Love, and this stems from the much-lauded relationship the administration has forged with the protesters. On its face, this appears to be a very good thing. No one has been injured or killed and the city has not been disrupted in any significant way. It’s a very positive anomaly in a sea of reports about police brutality against protesters. But it may pose a problem for the growth of this movement here, as the number of occupiers appears to have leveled off and a potentially difficult winter approaches. There are some characteristics about this very different occupation worth considering.

The prevailing wisdom at Occupy Philadelphia appears to be: Do not disrupt the relationship with the authorities to avoid a crackdown and public backlash.

Oakland riot cops raid Occupy Oakland. October 25th, 2011

The history of the Occupy movement has shown, from New York City to Boston and Oakland, that nonviolently challenging police, be it through trying to hold ground staked out for occupation or other bold acts (such as taking the Brooklyn Bridge) tends to balloon the number of supporters and participants. Does this “model” work for Philadelphia, however?

Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brookyln Bridge. October 1st, 2011

It is important to note that in every case, what went hand-in-hand with this nonviolent militancy, be it New York City or Oakland, was the brutal, sometimes violent tactics the police employed against protesters. This without question horrified many Americans, which likely grew sympathy and support from the public.

I have also heard speculation from a number of protesters here at camp that the city’s largely hands-off approach to the occupation is a tactic born out of a need to influence public perception of the administration itself. This is certainly not a far-fetched theory. By not acting in a reactionary manner, it’s possible city officials have essentially contained the movement here, and left the occupation in a difficult position: Do we nonviolently escalate and risk losing public support, giving even more support to the police, or take the chance that bolder, nonviolent direct action (challenging the police in the process) might just grow the movement?

So if the Philadelphia occupation decides to become bolder–not just marching, but holding sit-ins at banks and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, as hypothetical examples–what would the police response be to such actions? One obviously can only speculate, but judging by how the police department handled the sit-in at their headquarters–allowing the protesters to stay for an astounding 18 hours–they may not employ the violent responses we’ve seen in Oakland, New York City, Boston, and other cities. Mayor Nutter is facing re-election soon and may not want to risk upsetting union support. It’s possible the administration has also taken note of what happens when occupations are antagonized, and may be fearful of major public backlash, unlike Denver, who launched one of the most brutal crackdowns since the events in Oakland. The administration’s tone may also change after Nutter’s re-election too.

Only time will tell how both the occupation and police move ahead.

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!


No Time for Sound Bytes Now: #OccupyWallStreet is its Own Message

At Liberty Plaza, New York City (CC BY SA Carwil Bjork-James)

A formidable NYPD presence holds one side of the exit ramp while an equally-large throng of soaked, defiant youth face them on the other side. I’m heading back towards the ramp after witnessing a white-shirted police supervisor commandeer a public bus, ordering the passengers off and instructing the driver to turn around and head back to the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has been shut down for over an hour now. When the bus arrives, hundreds upon hundreds will be arrested and boarded onto the bus, as well as police vans. Meanwhile, the protesters on the street begin chanting to the police: “We pay YOU! We pay YOU!” and “It’s OUR bridge. It’s OUR bridge!” as a cold, driving rain fails to dampen their spirits.

Police square off against protesters. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Arriving four days earlier, I had hoped for, and was greatly disappointed when, a short list of demands never materialized from the occupation’s General Assembly. Repeal corporate personhood. Remove special interest money from elections. Something. Yet by the fourth day, standing at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge with this standoff, it was clear to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement had evolved.

The occupation at Liberty Plaza may outwardly appear to be just a large encampment of hundreds of tired, exuberant, unwashed people. But it’s an incredibly subversive idea. What the occupation has managed to do thus far is set up a center for agitation on Wall Street’s doorstep, while simultaneously stand up to the most militarized police force in America. In that brave act of defiance, they’ve begun the process of recapturing public space to assemble and foment resistance against a corrupt system, a public space lost to us after 9/11 (with the introduction of “free speech zones”) and just as importantly, begin to remedy the fear and cynicism so many Americans have been feeling for well over a decade now under the hand of a police state and a domestic intelligence apparatus unparalleled in American history. The Founders clearly understood that the right to assemble was of key importance to those who wanted to correct wrongs done by their government. If they could not assemble, they could not achieve their goals. Liberty Plaza is a long-overdue civics lesson.

The protesters have collectively said, simply by holding the plaza: This is OUR square, the PEOPLE’S square, and we have a right to assemble and organize a campaign against the economic and civil injustices perpetrated by the plutocrats and their tax payer-funded security service, the NYPD.

They’ve managed to pull back the curtain and expose the police state which works to protect the ruling elite’s interests at the expense of the citizens they originally took an oath to serve: CIA-trained NYPD counterintelligence squads; videotaping the faces of peaceful protesters to feed into a facial recognition database; commandeering public buses for mass arrests; entrapment; kettling and pepper spray. And perhaps the most audacious: A $4.6 million bribe, ostensibly for new laptops, given by JP Morgan to the NYPD. All of this against peaceful citizens who are the living embodiment of a wildly-popular sentiment in America since 2008: the rich and powerful in this country have gotten away with too much. When Americans demand fundamental change and refuse to rely on or even trust a thoroughly-corrupt system to achieve that change, they must begin at the root of their oppression, and it’s as simple an idea as occupying public space in the face of police intimidation.

This movement is only getting started, with many, many cities developing their own occupations. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps it’s time to just let this people-powered movement grow on its own, because you can’t package an idea whose time has come into one or two pithy sound bytes. As one protester told me: “It’s bigger than one or two issues because it’s not about reforming the hopelessly corrupt system we have. This is about creating a new system entirely.”

If you would like to donate to #OccupyWallStreet, visit the New York City General Assembly website.

The Project is leaving Wall Street to report on the Boston occupation, and then to Washington D.C. for the major October 6th occupation in our nation’s capital, but we can’t do it without your help. If you enjoy my work and would like to help me cover expenses such as travel, food and gear, please consider donating to the David and Goliath Project’s #Occupy Media Fund.


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