The march from Independence Mall to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange begins. An Occupy Philadelphia affinity group has been holding this federally-enforced space for over two weeks now – without signing a permit – and sleeping outside a Wells Fargo regional headquarters directly across the street at night. The National Park Service would not allow them to sleep on the cement apron at the entrance to the Mall.
Now Michael Mizner, a former Marine and Occupy Delaware transplant, carries a wind-battered tent up Market Street. Others carry sleeping bags and pull a wagon filled with supplies, including signs. This night march from the Mall consists of no more than 20.
This is Occupy Philadelphia adapting a tactic which initially was borne of necessity: unable to sleep at the Mall, the logical solution to avoid fines and possible federal charges was to sleep on public sidewalks, where “sleepful protest” is technically not illegal.
By the end of the occupation at Independence Mall, however, it was decided that outreach – which had suffered considerably during the Winter by some estimates – was going very well, but mainly consisted of interfacing with tourists. Moving into the heart of the city to begin continuous, small and mobile occupations on sidewalks outside the Stock Exchange, as well as banks throughout the financial district, seemed like a smart next step, in an effort to reach out to residents. It also fit nicely with the desire to refocus on messaging.
This “bank sleep” tactic appears to be taking off in other cities too – finding its genesis after the NYPD began evicting Occupy Wall Street protesters from Union Square on a nightly basis because of a park curfew. Once curfew rolled around, protesters would get pushed out of the park – so they took sidewalks outside of a nearby Bank of America. The idea then spread to the New York Stock Exchange. Occupiers in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore started their own too.
Could this be a tactical evolution for the Occupy movement as summer approaches?
“Occupy is built on memes,” says Mizner, repeatedly driving this point home to me as we march into Center City.
Memes, to paraphrase a Wikipedia definition, are cultural analogues like genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.
This makes sense. Bank Sleep is a tactic that easily transmits itself to groups in other cities, because it rekindles the idea of constant public visibility and pressure against “Too Big to Fail” banks, for example, which have been a cornerstone target of the movement and which continue to evade one of the movement’s foundational themes: economic justice.
The feeling among these Philadelphia “bank sleepers” that a loss of focus on core messaging occurred during the winter – as well as a lack of outreach during the winter – was instrumental in launching, rather autonomously, the Independence Mall occupation.
However more widely Bank Sleep is adopted – and whether it will even attract more movement participants in Philadelphia, many of whom are pursuing a multitude of projects ranging from reversing urban blight (Occupy Vacant Lots) to fighting Mayor Nutter’s ban on outdoor food service for the city’s homeless – one thing is certain: Bank Sleep is a much more sustainable form of occupation than the initial sprawling encampment which started in October at City Hall.
The encampment created immense logistical challenges – as well as physical and emotional tolls on the “diehards” who held the space until occupiers were evicted in late November. The influx of the city’s homeless population to the occupation at City Hall forced occupiers into the role of social service providers, despite many protesters having hardly been politically active to begin with, let alone equipped to deal with people struggling with addiction and other mental health issues.
That was back in October, however, and Spring has arrived with warm winds and renewed spirits.
The small march arrives at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange – purchased, incidentally, by NASDAQ in 2008, linking it ever closer to Wall Street. An occupier – clad in a dinosaur costume which doubles as pajamas – mic checks:
“Inside this building is the regional office for Goldman Sachs!”
The assembled crowd repeats this fact.
“You have THEM to thank for rising gas prices, due in part to commodities speculation!”
Across the street from the Exchange is a Bank of America branch. Some occupiers want to take the sidewalk there. Others want the sidewalk outside the Exchange. It is eventually agreed upon that bigger numbers in one location is preferable. A coin is flipped.
Bank of America.
I ask Mizner what he thinks of their new home.
The crew here begin making signs to greet morning pedestrians, before turning in for the night. One sign reads: “Bank of America was Sued $410 million for Overdraft Fees.”
A short while later, a woman and her child walk by, initially somewhat weary of this unusual sight. She takes note of the sign and suddenly gives the group a thumbs up.
“Keep it up!” she says. “I hate those damned overdraft fees!”