Tag Archives: Occupy Philadelphia

Why “Bank Sleep” Matters

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.

Occupy Independence Mall. Photo by Dustin Slaughter, Copyright 2012

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.

Photo by Timothy Kyle (@firstnightfree). Copyright 2012

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.

“It’s perfect.”

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!”


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.


How to Radicalize a Moderate: The story of a former OP City Liaison

Dylan Hewitt and Monica Hartlove, both of Philadelphia, participate in the Occupy Philadelphia protest in front of City Hall on October 7, 2011. Photo by Metro Philadelphia.

Editor’s note: This account is a strong example of why systems of control often times backfire. It also exposes the truth that governments often use the law to their advantage, as the author’s experiences dealing directly with the city illustrate. The allegations made in this piece can be independently corroborated. You can follow Julia Alford-Fowler on Twitter: @jalfordfowler. – D.S.

In the mind of most American citizens, local government officials exist (at least the majority of the time) to serve and answer to the people who elected them. It is within this system of accountability that we rely upon to make sure our best interests are being served. While I had a healthy amount of skepticism, this was my held view until the fall of 2011. I believed that the Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, and his staff were in office to protect their citizens, myself included, and that the problems of this country were for the most part the result of unchecked corporate greed on Wall Street, amid a variety of other issues.

What follows is an account of how my thinking was transformed from this moderate view of a trust in those in power into one in which my faith in our government and specifically, those who govern, was destroyed. For me, the Occupy Movement started with a purpose of giving a voice to the voiceless and a way for all of us who were angry at the state of our country to come together and create real change. I believed that this could be accomplished through dialogue and negotiations. Over the course of the two month encampment in front of City Hall in Philadelphia, I saw the necessity of the people’s voice to override the restrictions set to us by our lawmakers. I saw first hand that these lawmakers who were put into office through corporate dollars often do not serve the people who cast the ballots, but instead work to protect the interests of those who funded their campaigns. I began to ask myself the following: What makes free speech free? Is it something that falls within guidelines dictated by the government (as in such guidelines as “time, place and manner”) or is it citizens finding their voices and expressing them how they see fit, especially if they are not causing harm to another person?

At 7:00 am on October 6th, I stepped onto Dilworth Plaza full of hope, love and passion. What was sweeping our country had inspired me to throw myself head first into something I had never tried before – activism. What had happened with the NYPD at Occupy Wall Street disgusted me, but that was New York and as far as I could tell, Philadelphia was going to be different. I had already been told that the city was looking forward to working with us, that they were excited about this showcase of democracy at the footsteps of City Hall and that they wanted to present Philadelphia to the rest of the country as “The Cradle of Liberty.” All they wanted in return was a small group of people to act as liaisons with them and for us to apply for a permit. Over the course of the day, a small group of people decided that I would start out being that “liaison”.

Richard Negrin, Deputy Mayor and Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia. Photo from his personal Twitter account.

By 6:00 pm that day, I was sitting in the office of Richard Negrin, Deputy Mayor and Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia. During our conversation he said one thing in particular which struck me as unusual, but in the flurry of activity, I pushed it aside: If we get a few weeks into this and we need to boost publicity for the movement, they could help us stage an arrest.

A top-ranking city official just told me that they would be willing to set up a situation wherein 10 or so people lie down in the street and they would very politely cuff them and haul them away to jail.

In a later meeting with our small team of city liaisons, he repeated this statement and was echoed by Everett Gillison, Deputy Mayor of Public Safety and now Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff. Gillison confirmed this tactic, saying that it was something that they had done in the past and we simply needed to let them know how many people, at what time, and they would work with us to coordinate these arrests.

I should note that we never took the administration up on their offer.

Over the next two weeks I began to see a pattern in which the city was happy to have us there as long as they were able to subtly control our actions. When it came to the permit, the city was anxious for us to sign this piece of paper that would change our camp from a space that was a reclamation of public property for use by and service to the people of Philadelphia, to them granting us permission to be there under their oversight and control. Supposedly open-ended, once signed we could have access to electricity and protection from “other groups” trying to take over the space. At one point, Negrin called to warn me that we should sign immediately because the Tea Party had applied for a permit and they could only hold them off for so long. After checking around, I discovered that no one in the administration could confirm that this was the case. Once the permit was signed, we were given a long list of complaints from the city that we had to fix about the camp, which then dominated three weeks of daily General Assemblies. The pattern continued to build. As soon as we resolved one issue, the city would present us with another one, each of which would dominate endless hours of our time.

In regards to the “city liaison working group”, the General Assembly eventually voted to dissolve the working group and grant the role of communicating with the city on our behalf to the Legal Collective, which I then joined.

After the first and only meeting with the mayor and his staff, the General Assembly decided to answer the Mayor Nutter’s request for weekly meetings with a simple answer: No. We made clear that Occupy Philadelphia did not intend to cut off communication, and that continued emails and letters would be exchanged with the administration. I saw this as our group making the statement that we were going to protest on our terms, not theirs. I believed that as people of the United States, it is our right to do so. The government is supposed to be for the people and by the people. We would no longer tolerate a country in which our government’s voice is more important than that of the people who elected them. Additionally, we were demanding that all communications with the city be documented in order to protect our rights. As any meeting with the city in person was not allowed to be recorded, we refused to participate.

What happens when citizens decide they are no longer going to allow the suppression of their voices by the government? Shortly after we notified the Mayor’s office of our decision, on November 12th, there was a sexual assault at the camp. The following day, Mayor Nutter held a press conference which he used as a platform to attack Occupy Philly. He mentioned the assault in passing for only one sentence. During the conference he made the following statement, “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.” The Mayor of Philadelphia blatantly lied. All of the people that the city had worked with from day one, myself included, were still there. The only thing that had changed was that we were no longer allowing ourselves to be controlled by a system that served to protect the status quo. Incidentally, this press conference was held less than a week after the Mayor’s reelection bid was secured.

The mayor’s main complaint against Occupy Philadelphia? Sanitation. How many times have you walked through the subway and it smelled of urine? Or walked through your neighborhood and stepped around broken glass? Where is the press conference condemning these issues?

Luckily for the city, they found a new pawn in the form of a recently established group, Reasonable Solutions. In reaction to the General Assembly’s earlier decision to resist eviction, the leaders of this group set up a meeting with city officials and applied for a permit for Thomas Paine Plaza, located directly across from Dilworth Plaza. When the city handed one proposed permit to them and one to Occupy Philadelphia, it was entirely restrictive. It allowed for a single canopy tent and was limited to the hours of 9am to 7pm. In effect, it negated the purpose of our protest – no occupation. While Occupy Philadelphia submitted an appeal, Reasonable Solutions did nothing. Shortly after we were notified that our appeal had been denied, the city held a press conference to showcase Reasonable Solutions signing the new permit. This gave the city every excuse to evict us without any further negotiation. Because a group that vaguely resembled Occupy Philadelphia had been willing to sign this permit, the Mayor could now say that they had done their due diligence, and to the common observer, they had.

Within a week, the city had us evicted. Late on the night of November 29th, roughly 400 riot cops, countless bicycle cops and what I counted as eight mounted officers on horses, all assembled to challenge approximately 100 protesters. At this time there was evidence that the evictions were being coordinated by both a series of nationwide conference calls between Mayors and later calls between Police Chiefs that were set up by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). The fact that this show of force to evict our camp was beyond excessive should come as no surprise given that our police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, is the President of the Board of Directors of PERF.

Protesters marching from City Hall after eviction. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

After we left the plaza following the final dispersal order, there was a group of 50 or so protesters (i.e. residents of Philadelphia) on the street and the sidewalk in front of Dilworth Plaza. At one point I turned to see the mounted police charging into the crowd, trampling the foot of a member of our media team. This incident was so shocking that my husband, who had been watching via livestream, called and pleaded with me to return home. Later, I sent the following tweet to Richard Negrin and Mayor Nutter:

Richard Negrin’s reply?

This video clearly shows the officers first moving people onto the sidewalk and then, once they are on the sidewalk, charging into the crowd and overtaking the sidewalk. Once I returned home I watched the rest of the events unfold via livestream and the ABC livefeed. What follows is the first hand account from friends who were on the scene: After this incident, the evicted protesters kept marching through the streets with chants of “You can’t evict an idea!”. As the march was beginning to wind down, the police kettled in half of the crowd, abused several of the marchers, including an African-American male who was punched in the kidney multiple times. Even if the kettled marchers were given a dispersal order, which they were not, they had no means of leaving. Instead they were told to get on the sidewalk or they would be arrested. They got on the sidewalk and were subsequently arrested.

When I started working with the city, I saw a purpose to it. I saw a chance to create dialogue between people that normally wouldn’t talk to each other and through these conversations we could create real change. Unfortunately, the conversations were short lived. Our General Assemblies were more often than not dominated with discussions about how to respond to the city and how to keep the tenuous relationship peaceful. We were acting out of fear, fear that what had been brought down on the heads of our compatriots in other cities would be brought down on ours. We forgot the golden rule of democracy, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

From the beginning I made it my maxim that I would work with the city until they harmed my people. Early in the morning of November 30th, they harmed my people. I awoke to the fact that this sort of abuse of power had been occurring throughout this city, country and world for centuries and I was just beginning to join a fight that was vital, powerful, terrifying and righteous. While I may never understand what it is to risk my life in Syria, or to be threatened by police in the poorest neighborhoods in this country because of my skin color, I now see the danger of any government which has more power than that of its people. There is an inherent necessity for all of us to rise up, stand together, and make our voices heard through action.


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!