by Lou Mancinelli
A group of a few hundred people ranging in age and diversity, some carrying signs gathered last Thursday morning outside City Hall as part of the Occupy Philly (OP) movement to bring attention to and an end to what protestors call rampant corporate greed and a flawed American system that bails out the rich and ignores the poor. Thousands occupied Wall Street in Manhattan this month in similar fashion.
“We are all the people’s committee,” said Larry Swetman, 25, as he spoke to the crowd early on in the event. Swetman, a bottom-liner for the OP facilitation committee, is a barista who moved to Philadelphia from Atlanta, Georgia. “Lend your voice. Lend your energy. Be the change you want to see in the world.”
By nightfall, the number of protestors had dwindled, but at least two hundred people occupied Dilworth Plaza. A small tent community was erected. By Monday morning, the tent community had grown to one-hundred plus tents.
While a number of protestors, including Swetman, mentioned revolution, few had any idea as to what sort of system would work in place of our current government and economic institutions in the event their movement succeeded. But that did not deter their efforts or convictions. They maintained Thursday’s gathering and ensuing occupation is the beginning. It is about spreading the message and bringing people together in solidarity. Details about how will unfold as the process evolved, they maintained.
Facebook was the main communication tool used element to organize OP, according to John Laing, an OP media relations coordinator. The demonstrations in Cairo at Tahrir Square were an inspiration and catalyst to this event, he said.
Protestors plan to occupy City Hall, they claim, some sleeping overnight, until their message is acknowledged by political leaders. Young adults collected several hundred empty cardboard boxes, many from dumpsters, which they have used as beds.
Organizers communicate to the crowd using what they call a “mic check.” This is when someone stands at a high, prominent location, usually on a bench, and yells out “mic check.” The crowd repeats, and then the speaker disseminates his or her message in fragments of sentences that the crowd repeats. By nightfall, the group was using mic checks to take votes on whether or not they would apply for a permit. At first there was dissent about the application, but talks assuaged anxieties and occupants applied and were approved for a permit on Friday.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said Thursday morning the protestors were peaceful. He maintained their right to assemble. “I am optimistic,” he said, that the crowd would remain peaceful.
For now the protestors’ message remains clear.
“One percent of the people squander all the wealth,” said Steve Ford, 56, who carried a sign that said one percent does not equal the people. “It’s just not fair.”
“I always envied America, this was a dream,” said Wagaye Berhanu, a 41-year-old Ethiopian-born recent graduate of a University of Pennsylvania master’s education program. “I thought this was the land of opportunity. Coming here has been very disappointing… As I can see this is a fake democracy. Money is the master. The poor masses are the losers and the banks are bailed out and the system continues.”
“I think they should do something like FDR did,” said Zandra Christ, a retired main Philadelphia Public Library branch librarian about a potential solution.
“I think this is an outpouring of people who have never met but are concerned about the way our country is going,” said Helen Evelev, a retired social worker.
“I am here to support the movement to stop corporate interference in the political process,” said Reggie Abdullah, 58, of North Philadelphia. “[…] It goes across racial boundaries. There should be no boundaries for people who seek a decent means of living.”
While the protest appeared to be a disjointed gathering of various individuals who were upset with different aspects of the government, the tone of unrest ran among all the protestors the Local talked to.
“We are being lied to and setup to be enslaved in debt,” said Pete Walksi, 23, of Philadelphia. Walksi, a two-time college dropout, said he became disillusioned with what he was taught during his business sustainability courses at Arizona State University. Sustainability was not what he was taught, he said. Instead, he was taught profitability. Walksi said the disintegration of the Federal Reserve would be a step in the right direction towards hammering out a solution.
The OP movement developed into a quasi-cohesive event last week during initial meetings at Broad Street Ministry, located at 315 South Broad Street by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, according to Laing, a web developer at the American College of Physicians.
At that meeting, various individuals took initiative and began to organize the large group of people into various outreach committees he said. A number of subcommittees were formed, and bottom-liners, or point persons, were designated. Those committees include separate groups for help, food, art, welcoming and even media-interaction training, among others. According to Laing, new committees continue to be created as ideas arise.
“A lot of people are tossing around the word leaderless movement,” Laing said. “But it is really a leaderful movement. Anyone that wants to can be a leader.”
He said next week organizers, who shy from being labeled such, would talk more about exactly how their mission will play out and develop a clear direction. At that time, there should be some sort of document that can be presented to legislators, though, at this point, no committee or person has been selected for such a role. Laing said the OP legal team would help decide that aspect of the movement.
“There is no hierarchy,” he said. “[Leadership, or the bottom-liners] was organically grown.”
For now, general assembly’s will be hosted twice a day at City Hall, as announced on the scene. Laing said larger marches are planned for each Saturday as the movement continues.
It is slow process, Laing said Monday morning, about the movement and added that Occupy Wall Street leaders only recently presented their demands.
While it may be slow, the word about the protest is spreading into the professional realms. Representatives from the Teamsters Local Union No. 929 heard about the occupation Thursday morning on the radio, and decided to offer their support.
“We share the same interests,” said No. 929 President Rocky Bryan, Jr. “Corporate America ran the economy into the toilet.”
“Corporate America has waged war on the workers,” said John Preston, also of the 929. “We are here to support the working class.”
As far as the next step, protestors maintained spreading the word was their first goal.
“I don’t really have any assumptions about what or should happen,” said John Wieme, 27, of Philadelphia, who works for a non-profit energy company. “It’s just starting now.” Wieme said he favored a progressive tax policy that taxed the rich more.
And while the event reminded some of the Vietnam and Civil Rights protests of days past, one occupier said the tenacity of those times was lacking today.
‘This is not as furious,” said Maggie McCourt, 65, of Roxborough. McCourt held a sign that read “A job is a right.”
Still, the protestors maintain the strength of their message resonates with 99 percent of the people in the U.S. They maintain they are a part of and represent the 99 percent who answer to the one percent. They maintain the one percent are the rich who benefit from the maladies of society’s social institutions and structures. For now, occupants will work on gathering momentum.
“Instead of being in our individual worlds and discontent,” said Swetman, “we are here together discontent.”