The First Two Weeks of Occupy Philadelphia
By Ben Webster
On the morning of October 14, one week into Occupy Philadelphia’s encampment beside City Hall, someone emptied the contents of a paint can on the building’s southwestern entrance. The unknown painter fled the scene, leaving behind a decidedly unsymbolic smear. Not of angry black or bloody red, but a smear of bland mint green. Police cordoned off the entrance, dismissing eager Occupy volunteers offering their assistance. A pressure cleaner quickly removed all traces of the deed.
This bizarre incident suggests much about Philadelphia’s iteration of the Occupy phenomenon. Like other occupations, its porous boundaries integrate the protest site with the flows of the city. Participants, passers-by, police, and provocateurs move freely throughout, with the possibility of enriching or destabilizing the action; was our painter a police provocateur or a well-intentioned but strategically challenged participant? Both were considered in the aftermath.
This incident also suggests the ambiguity and contradiction in the political imagination of Occupy Philadelphia (OP). What constitutes meaningful action – a spectacular act of vandalism, the peaceful occupation of public property, or direct action on the horizon more confrontational and radical? There has been no shortage of activity – daily marches strike out to the usual targets – but as of yet no dramatic confrontations like those of Occupy Wall Street have occurred. This is the real significance of the green paint incident. That such a blatant act of vandalism against the seat of municipal power was shrugged off so quickly by occupiers and police alike indicates both the power and impotence of OP. On the one hand, there was no police advance under the pretext of this or any other number of small provocations – surely an index of our power. On the other hand, the incident is an index of the limited threat to capital’s power that OP poses, which is, as of yet, not enough to move the heavy hand of the state, a hand whose ruthless power has been amply shown in recent Philadelphia history, from the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house to the repression of protests against the 2000 Republican National Convention.
To use two familiar political concepts, Occupy Philadelphia is at once animated by both the spirit of the commons and of the strike. I do not wish to argue for the primacy of either approach or assert their incompatibility, but rather to frame the young history of OP as a state of tension between these two poles. As a participant in the occupation, I hope to describe from both experience and analysis the distinct character of the Occupy X movement in post-industrial, working-class Philadelphia, and its significance for the contemporary class struggle.
Fighting City Hall
Occupy Philadelphia feels like a march, a strike, a commune, and a carnival. This variety of forms derives from the peculiarity of the tactic. One can participate in OP just by moving ordinary human activities – like sleeping, eating, socializing – to the occupation site. But “extraordinary” human activities – demonstrations, assemblies, teach-ins, movie screenings – have taken place there as well, creating a charged but uneven topography. The personal and the political do not yet coincide here, but they rub shoulders. A reading group on Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community next to campers drying their soggy socks on a clothes line; a college dude testing out pickup lines in earshot of the people of color caucus.
Philly’s unique Occupy identity has developed in large part due to a détente with the city and its police. Over 1,000 people attended a raucous planning meeting two days before the occupation’s inauguration, a sizable show of force well covered by the local press. Of the two options available to the Philadelphia police – massive and very public repression or tacit cooperation – they opted for the latter. At 9 AM on October 6, hundreds assembled on the west side of City Hall and began constructing an encampment with relatively little interference. Although police are stationed visibly around the occupation and conduct walk-throughs both uniformed and plain-clothed, so far they’ve acted with restraint.
Activity in violation of city codes, including the construction of pallet structures for the homeless, has been permitted, emboldening some occupiers but creating an acrimonious internal debate. The hands-off approach thus far by the police confirms the liberal naiveté of some who, using the movement’s vocabulary, identify the police and city brass as part of “the 99%,” and therefore our allies. Indeed, Mayor Michael Nutter and Chief of Police Charles Ramsey made very public, very genial appearances at OP in its first days. Others, from political acumen or personal experience, view the city’s overtures with skepticism or overt antagonism. This debate came to a head with the early question posed to the general assembly of acquiring a permit, and has persisted to current discussions on how to respond to the city’s evolving position. The GA voted for a permit after much discussion. Although unprecedented in modern Philadelphia history for the liberties and exemptions it grants to the occupation, the permit does bind OP in a legalistic stasis – official, even granted a welcome by the powers that be, but neutered of antagonism. To the outlaw, relations of power are crystal clear.
This Philly compromise distinguishes OP from its Occupy Wall Street (OWS) template. Freed from both the glare of the international media and the menace of overt police activity, OP turns inward. Freedom from repression in a far larger physical space than OWS offers opportunities to strengthen our position but also deepens the contradictions latent within the Occupy movement. And although the police aren’t yet using pepper-spray and batons as they have against our New York comrades, this doesn’t indicate a lack of police tactics to crush OP. Two strategies must be anticipated from our enemies in City Hall. One, the strategy of patience, in which the police bide their time and wait for either winter weather or the “tragedy of the commons” to disperse OP. Two, the exploitation of incidents of non-passivity at OP-associated direct actions to crack down on the encampment. Both approaches can be anticipated, and, with proper foresight, made to backfire as the attempts at repression in New York have.
Strike and Commons
Philadelphia City Hall is monumental, the symbolic and geographical center of a battered but tenacious city. It is the second-tallest masonry building in the world, and in its heyday was a wonder of architectural achievement. The city’s two subway lines intersect underneath it, sending continuous rumblings up to its cold stone plazas. Along its west side is Dilworth Plaza, a two block long concrete plaza cast in the austere style of 60s urban renewal. It is the habitual dwelling of a large homeless population, and is scheduled to be handed over shortly to a private development group for the building of a cafe, skating rink, and conceptual fountains. In autumn, the plaza is perpetually in the shadow of City Hall and the surrounding office buildings, and whipped by intense winds.
OP has adapted many organizational features of the Occupy movement. The general assembly, which meets daily at 7 PM, is the primary forum for communication and decision-making. Working groups assure the daily reproduction of the occupation (food, medic, education, safety, facilitation, etc.) and its strategic thrust (direct action, media, messaging, etc.). Over 300 tents have been erected across Dilworth Plaza, populated by various “tribes” of the political and non-political (“do you go to the general assembly?”), young and old, white and black, counter-cultural and normies. Things are typically quiet before noon, and afterwards through the evening swell with part-time participants who sleep at home, curiosity-seekers, representatives of various political organizations, cops, passers-by, and the media. OP benefits greatly from its location literally on top of the city’s busiest transit hub. High school students and commuters contribute to its open vitality; there is strength in numbers, even if they are anonymous and temporary. Despite its proximity to Philadelphia’s central business district, OP does not have the belly-of-the-beast feel of OWS; this is not a global city, and a proletarian mien contaminates even those quarters fashioned in the mold of neoliberal finance capital.
OP, like its peers, strives for horizontal organization – ideally all participants have an equal right to determine the course of the occupation. The space created at OP for experimentation in egalitarian decision-making should be applauded; the proliferation of such spaces is essential for the project of proletarian autonomy. However, since thus far participation in decision-making and execution is encouraged but not compulsory, I would suggest that in practice, power at OP is functioning along the lines of a kind of primitive syndicalism. Proposals submitted for approval at the general assembly must first pass through a daily co-committee meeting (“co-co”), composed of representatives of the various working groups. In effect, access to power at OP is streamlined by participation in a working group: in the micro-society of OP, the workers in the working groups that constitute its infrastructure constitute its sovereign power. Is this a positive model to acknowledge and propagate, or a model that will tend to produce a division among occupiers between more active participants and those who participate by simply showing up and remaining in the encampment? It should be noted that groups such as caucuses of anarchists and people of color, by dint of their organizational capacity or moral power, readily move to the center of OP’s sovereign power at parity with the working groups. The ambiguity of the situation lies in the question of access to power: should this be determined by capacity for organization or objective position within existing social hierarchies? How can the reproduction of these hierarchies be actively combated within the occupations?
Confusion, overlap, and frustration are tolerated out of necessity at OP by the proliferating working groups. Good faith and movement momentum – for the time – paper over the considerable challenges of constituting a micro-society from a milieu of strangers with varying experiences and backgrounds, excepting the occasional raised voices and scuffles.
How long can the momentum last? OP has passed through three overlapping stages: spectacle, organization, and critique/action. In the early days in which spectacle dominated, everyone seemed to be filming everyone else with cellphone cameras, and the media swarmed over it all. When people gathered on the morning of October 6, they seemed uncertain what to do, which protest rituals to follow – who do I show my sign to? Is this a rally, a sit-in, or what? Who’ll be the first to set up their tent, and where? The proliferation of image production coincided with a nervous amorphous mass, only vaguely aware of its commonality and power.
In the second stage, organization, the encampment’s infrastructure was established. With the formation of working groups and procedures for communication and decision-making, the potential of the mass was harnessed. Dilworth Plaza was spatially delineated and mapped. Sub-groups such as the people of color caucus and the wheelchair-dependent self-organized to identify and correct patterns of exclusion. Brief struggles for control of media and outreach efforts finally expelled a narcissistic individual who treated OP’s Facebook page as a personal fiefdom. Internal organization is an ongoing process involving considerable experimentation, but the day to day reproduction of OP is secured for now, clearing the way for a deepening focus on critique and action.
In this current stage of critique and action, the conceptual parameters of commons and strike assume their power. Two questions, of demands and of acceptable direct action, predominate. It is widely accepted that OP can only maintain its momentum with a constant schedule of marches, teach-ins, and speakers. In this laboratory of praxis, in which the tactic of maintaining the occupation and the proliferation of collective critique are mutually reinforcing, the only thing lacking is a catalyst of true resistance. Marches have set out from OP to harass banks, visit predatory student loan sharks, tour shitty hospitals, and, arguably most successfully, chase Eric Cantor from a speaking engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia PD dutifully block off intersections and escort the marchers to their target and back to the occupation. OP now ironically possesses the power to march unobstructed anywhere in the city it chooses, but seems to be running out of symbolically potent destinations. All dressed up with nowhere to go, obscure political differences take on a new importance. What if the police are our enemies precisely by acting like our most obliging friends? If the “1%” can so easily neutralize our efforts, why will they bother listening to our demands?
OP recasts Dilworth Plaza as a commons, shifting it from a nominally public space to an actively common one, collectively owned by those who rule to the extent that they actively participate. It is a space striving towards decommodification, where human relationships have more value than the exchange of money. Yet it also bears a resemblance to a strike, a collective suspension of normal activity leading to a confrontational moment of decision. As the weather turns, the quotidian quality of OP tends towards the grim resolve of a picket line in the dead of winter. The two forms are not mutually exclusive; every commons must be defended, and every strike relies on a shared territory of experience, spatial or otherwise. The tendencies towards commons or strike do not neatly coincide with reformist or revolutionary perspectives. Yet the intersection of the forms makes for an unhappy tension, unable to develop with confidence in either direction. To expand and deepen the commons would be to hit too deeply and radically at the relations of private property and social reproduction for some participants. To adopt the antagonistic solidarity of the strike would be to abandon all pretenses of cooperation with the state and its agents, unacceptable for some. The project of OP, and the Occupy movement more broadly, is to synthesize the commons and the strike in a form appropriate to current relations of power and production.
Proletarian combativeness in Philadelphia, the site of many proud clashes in the history of American class struggle, still exists, evidenced by a variety of expressions ranging from the victorious PASNAP strike at Temple Hospital in 2010 to the auto-reduction action organized by teens at a local Sears store this past summer. OP is potentially a site of encounter and recomposition for a metropolitan working class changed by decades of deindustrialization, a swelling population of recent immigrants, and the combative youth subcultures of the flash mob and debt-ridden college grad variety. Although the process remains vague and preliminary, the occupation movement in Philly is a promising indicator of the working class’s political recomposition.
Two of the largest populations in the OP encampment are the long-term homeless and the college student milieu. That they sleep willingly side by side for weeks at a time speaks to the novelty of the Occupy movement. The close, extended contact of occupiers tends to cut through prejudice and ideological mystification, even though the egalitarian ideal of the movement remains distant. Individuals and groups who may never have otherwise encountered each other in the huge city now find themselves sharing both an economic critique and a tent. Should a major work stoppage occur in the city soon – both the Verizon negotiations and a number of public sector contract negotiations remain unsettled – encounter on a far larger scale is possible. The city’s major unions have issued statements of support for the occupation, but a material mingling has the potential to change the constitution of both movements for the better and expand momentum beyond the focal encampment. OP, however, may in the long run be a better producer of subjectivities then of concrete demands, and this would not be a fault.
An important subjectivity crystallizing in the Occupy movement is similar to the driving force behind the global originators of the occupation concept in Spain, Egypt, and Tunisia: young, educated, and downwardly mobile workers. Many recent graduates or dropouts of local universities like Temple and the University of Pennsylvania provide a motive force behind OP’s working groups, experiencing a mode of collective struggle quite different from managed, predictable campus “activism.” As comrades in California noted during the university occupations there in fall 2009, the practice of occupying tends to dissolve outdated distinctions like that between “workers” and “students.” A tantalizing possibility begging more research is the connection between OP’s site above a transit hub, and the highly mobile nature of this sector, moving around the city at odd hours between multiple part-time jobs, casual work, and classes. Earlier cycles of struggles in Philly, from the post-New Left Movement for a New Society in the 1970s to the clashes at the 2000 RNC, bequeathed long-lasting infrastructures of radical institutions and experience. Will OP be the coming-out party for a new cycle or just a flash in the pan?
OP clearly owes its inspiration to Occupy Wall Street, encamped just two hours up the New Jersey Turnpike. The proximity of the two cities allowed many Philly organizers to visit OWS before launching OP, taking note of its organizational model and learning from its miscues. As one of the largest occupations in the country as of yet spared overt police repression, OP is both a significant model for the national movement and something of an aberration. Among occupiers, the relationship of OP to the movement remains uncertain, bespeaking a larger ambiguity towards the global, national, and local contexts of the crisis. Material efforts have been made to share resources with OWS, and solidarity actions with comrades attacked by police in Oakland and Atlanta are under discussion.
The political imaginary of OP remains largely stuck at the national level. Rhetoric of the 99%, Wall Street, and corporate taxes implicitly locates the current social and economic crises within national borders. Yet these crises have international causes and implications, and resistance in the form of occupations has likewise been a global phenomenon. As the calls for unified Occupy X demands increases, a real danger exists both in ignoring the global character of capital and our struggles, and in failing to connect Occupy’s critiques with local conditions and local grievances.
A faction within OP seized an early opportunity to advance long-standing local grievances and make demands of the city. After receiving a letter from the city government which made several demands of OP (dismantle fire hazards, control open urination, etc.), they refused a paternalistic relationship and in turn advanced several demands at the GA that OP should make in response. One of these included a repeal of Philadelphia’s racist youth curfew law. Conveniently up for a vote of extension steps away in City Hall, the law was initially passed to kill off the flash mobs that once rocked the city. Fighting a law that intentionally seeks to fracture, discipline, and manage specific layers of the working class would go a long way to reconnecting with those sectors that are still underrepresented at OP.
This general effort was accompanied by distribution of an excellent summary of recent local struggles, entitled “The Mayor and Police Are not Our Friends!” Spearheaded largely by anarchists (who have been the convenient targets of an ongoing red-baiting campaign), this effort has brilliantly changed the inflection of OP, focusing attention on local communities already in struggle. A predictable backlash followed, with many claiming that linking the occupation with struggles around the curfew and police brutality diluted our message and weakened public support.
This backlash escalated when 15 occupiers were arrested in front of Philadelphia PD headquarters on the national October 22 day of protest against police brutality. Although the efficacy of their non-violent civil disobedience tactics is debatable (all blocked a street overnight, refusing repeated police orders to disperse), the reality of police brutality in Philly is not. The first arrests of OP were denounced by many who sought to distance the activities at City Hall from those which, pushed outward by the occupation’s momentum, occurred elsewhere in the city. Should this failure of solidarity and centrifugal political imagination continue, OP will likely die a wintry death shivering in the shadows of Center City.
The October 22 arrests and the emergence of a new ultimatum from the city throw the future of OP into question. After granting an open-ended permit to the occupation, with no stated end date, the city announced November 15 as the first day of the renovation of Dilworth Plaza. This renovation includes the total reconstruction of the plaza by a private company bearing a 30-year lease, which will install an ice-skating rink and chic cafe, obviously inspired by Manhattan tourist geographies. Of course, the renovation will entail fencing off the plaza, expelling not only the occupation, but also the homeless who use it as a long-term home. So the date has been set for confrontation. Whether the city backs down, OP relocates, or is forcibly expelled, is uncertain. How OP decides to act against this threat will be a major indicator of the movement’s resolve and potential.
A far larger challenge, however, is the winter weather. The last two Philadelphia winters have been among the harshest on record. Simply put, OP cannot withstand a northeastern winter at its current size, and should not try to. Discouraged dispersion when the temperature dips is the worst possible outcome, and providing a spectacle of personal suffering to the media through it all is a terrible tactic. Occupations have captured the imagination of the world, but fetishizing the tactic is a strategic blunder. The only limit to continuing and growing this nascent movement is our imagination. Our conversations and GAs must move, and quickly, to the discussion of new tactics – occupying abandoned buildings (of no short supply in Philly), subversive organizing in our schools and workplaces, strengthening of the local struggles our anarchist comrades have drawn attention to – action, education, and theorizing without a central encampment if need be. GAs can continue indoors, marches and direct action can expand throughout the city, and of course hardcore occupiers can continue outside if they wish. This strategic retreat is actually an advance across the entirety of the social terrain – but one that will require defying the logic of media representation and the spectacle of contemporary politics.
In one form or the other, we can be optimistic that Occupy Philadelphia will inspire a winter of discontent in the City of Brotherly Love. Come spring, we can reoccupy not only Dilworth Plaza, but Rittenhouse Square, Love Park, Franklin Parkway, and – why not – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, too.
Ben Webster works part-time in the education sector. He volunteers at Wooden Shoe Books and the Occupy Philly library, and writes occasionally on cinema at macchina-ammazzacattivi.blogspot.com.