Occupy Philly is Dead! Long Live Occupy Philly!

The emer­gency ses­sion of the Occupy Philly Gen­eral Assem­bly this past Thurs­day decided, at around 10PM, to imme­di­ately move from Dil­worth Plaza, where Occupy Philly is cur­rently grounded, to Thomas Paine Plaza. When the pro­posal passed, every­one broke into smaller groups, rushed to grab what­ever was around, and began mov­ing to the other side of the street. Soon after, the police arrived, con­fu­sion descended, and, not hav­ing decided on any plan ahead of time, we spon­ta­neously broke into three groups: the first regrouped back at Dil­worth, the sec­ond was left at Thomas Paine, and the third decided to storm City Hall. At the end of it all, we were forced to aban­don our objec­tive, with­draw back to the orig­i­nal encamp­ment, and rethink the whole affair.

Some called it a skir­mish, oth­ers an exper­i­ment, but I think we have to rec­og­nize that it was a defeat, albeit a nec­es­sary defeat – one that, if con­fronted directly, might para­dox­i­cally prove to be our great­est suc­cess. Part reflec­tion, part aut­o­cri­tique, what fol­lows is my attempt to think through the events of that night.

State of Emer­gency?

An announce­ment was made, before intro­duc­ing the pro­posal to move to Thomas Paine Plaza, remind­ing every­one to stay calm, to avoid spread­ing rumors, and to stymie the cir­cu­la­tion of fear. Imme­di­ately after­wards we were told that evic­tion from Dil­worth Plaza was immi­nent. “They could come at any moment: tomor­row morn­ing, tonight, or even right now.” Indeed, the City had posted ambigu­ously-worded yel­low posters at the occu­pa­tion remind­ing us that our per­mit will expire as soon as con­struc­tion begins, that con­struc­tion was in fact “immi­nent,” and that we should all take this oppor­tu­nity to vacate. So an abridged Gen­eral Assem­bly hur­riedly met ear­lier in the day to draft a pro­posal, the evening meet­ing was – per­haps unwisely – dubbed an “emer­gency ses­sion,” and we were repeat­edly reminded through­out that we would have to vacate the room in which we were gath­ered (gen­er­ously made avail­able to us by the Friends Cen­ter) by 9PM. Lit­tle sur­prise that a per­va­sive atmos­phere of urgency, alarm, and even dis­tress filled the air.

But the rumors about imme­di­ate evic­tion were just that. It was the city itself that had devi­ously cir­cu­lated the threat of an immi­nent con­fronta­tion, falsely announced that it had already given the notice, and con­niv­ingly spread the assump­tion that any such crack­down would be legally jus­ti­fied. And we bought it. The loom­ing sense of omi­nous dis­as­ter set the tone for the entire assem­bly: we rushed through the pro­posal, trun­cated the stack, tabled amend­ments, encour­aged speak­ers to be brief, reverted heav­ily to straw polls – in short, we did every­thing in our power to move as quickly as demo­c­ra­t­i­cally pos­si­ble that night. And this would have all been jus­ti­fied had the rumors been true. But they weren’t.

There was no con­flict around the cor­ner, no offi­cial notice of evic­tion, and no legal legit­i­macy for such an action. After the whole affair, we finally learned – much to our cha­grin – that those yel­low posters were not really offi­cial evic­tion notices. The city had lied. Of course, we didn’t know, so the spec­tre of evic­tion weighed heav­ily on us all that whole night. It was used to shoot down a friendly amend­ment post­pon­ing the move until the next morn­ing, when we would have more sup­port, orga­ni­za­tion, and vis­i­bil­ity. It was used to jus­tify the argu­ment that if we failed to move imme­di­ately we would forefeit the ini­tia­tive. It was used, in sum, to con­vince us that the only thing we really could do was respond as quickly as pos­si­ble – even if that meant respond­ing with­out any real prepa­ra­tion.

To Ground Our Pol­i­tics on Revenge?

A few days prior it was dis­cov­ered that the so-called “Rea­son­able Solu­tions Work­ing Group” had entered into secret nego­ti­a­tions with the City. The group, which already had a rather sor­did his­tory of red-bait­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and gen­eral unco­op­er­a­tive­ness, made it clear that they would no longer accept the deci­sions of the Gen­eral Assem­bly. So in direct oppo­si­tion to the deci­sion made last week to hold our ground, “Rea­son­able Solu­tions” chose to act alone by ask­ing the city for a per­mit for Thomas Paine Plaza. The sov­er­eignty of the Gen­eral Assem­bly was imme­di­ately under­mined and the weak­ness of the occu­pa­tion itself as a form of strug­gle was made painfully appar­ent. Now every­one knew for cer­tain, with­out the shadow of a doubt, that there were not only ene­mies in our own ranks, but there were seri­ous con­tra­dic­tions at the heart of the move­ment.

This, of course, was on everyone’s minds as they walked into the Friends Cen­ter Thurs­day night to dis­cuss the emer­gency pro­posal. But more than con­fu­sion, dis­ap­point­ment, or even anger, there was a pal­pa­ble desire for revenge. Sev­eral occu­piers made the explicit con­nec­tion: vot­ing to occupy Thomas Paine Plaza tonight would pre­empt “Rea­son­able Solu­tions.” They under­mined us, now we will under­mined them. Wild applause. To tell you the truth, I can’t say I wasn’t among them. We felt betrayed. But instead of inter­ro­gat­ing this betrayal fur­ther, instead of try­ing to ratio­nally under­stand what this said about the cohe­sive­ness of our move­ment, or the polit­i­cal effec­tive­ness of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, or the nature of the encamp­ment as a viable tac­tic, we let our instincts take over. Too afraid to find a solu­tion to the deeper causes of this betrayal, we hoped to sim­ply efface it by smoth­er­ing the affair as quickly as pos­si­ble.

For the Union Makes Us Strong?

The move to Thomas Paine Plaza was in part moti­vated by the admirable desire to build stronger con­nec­tions to the unions. As we have men­tioned else­where, for the move­ment to suc­ceed, it is obvi­ous that it will have to form deeper ties with other sec­tors of the work­ing class. This means both the hyper­ex­ploited work­ers that always go unrep­re­sented as well as those more tra­di­tional sec­tors of the class that con­tinue to be orga­nized in the trade unions. It was argued that hold­ing Dil­worth Plaza, and there­fore indef­i­nitely delay­ing its pro­posed ren­o­va­tion, would actu­ally pre­vent thou­sands of jobs for union­ized work­ers. If we moved, the argu­ment went, it would show our sol­i­dar­ity with those work­ers in way that might bring them closer to Occupy Philly.

The same argu­ment reap­peared Thurs­day night, but this time, it was for­mal­ized in a let­ter read aloud by the Labor Work­ing Group, and sup­ported by sev­eral union rep­re­sen­ta­tives in atten­dance. We were now told that the unions would not only sup­port the move, but that they would even be will­ing to help us move, and that they might even call a march in sol­i­dar­ity. This, of course, was never a guar­an­tee. But many of us took our desires for real­ity by assum­ing that the unions would all be behind us when we made the move. As though all we had to do was shine the bat-sig­nal into the sky for all the unions to tri­umphantly appear in the mid­dle of the night. Pre­dictably, of course, there were no unions in sight when we did make that move later that night.

First, while we must draw our­selves closer to union­ized work­ers, we must bear in mind that the rank and file is not the bureau­cracy. While we might be able to trust our fel­low work­ers in the unions, we should never delude our­selves into trust­ing those who man­age those unions. Sec­ond, we have to ask our­selves what sol­i­dar­ity really means. Is it enough for the unions to issue a state­ment sup­port­ing our move? Is it enough for them to tell us that they would be open to speak­ing with us about future actions? Or must we some­how try to make sol­i­dar­ity mate­rial again? We have to clar­ify the word­ing of our pro­pos­als. And this was, in fact, done that night. We would make the action not with the unions, as was falsely stated in the orig­i­nal, but we would do so with the expected sup­port of the unions. Sadly, this was passed off by every­one, includ­ing the facil­i­ta­tors, as a mere chang­ing in word­ing, one that would not in any way make a sub­stan­tial change to the con­tent of the pro­posal itself. But, in real­ity, this was a first step toward rethink­ing the prac­tice of sol­i­dar­ity. The unions will sup­port us only when they bring their work­ers out in union col­ors to stand by us. Until then, all we have is our words, not real sol­i­dar­ity. Why should we give so much weight to the argu­ments in sup­port of the unions when the unions have not given any sup­port to our argu­ments? We need to stop fetishiz­ing the unions.

What Are Our Ene­mies Think­ing?

After the pro­posal to move was passed we all set to work. I joined the Library Work­ing Group in fill­ing crates with books, mov­ing book­shelves, and secur­ing all the lit­er­a­ture. A few of us made a kind of library car­a­van from one plaza to the other, vic­to­ri­ously cross­ing the street, to the other side, filled with a sense of gen­eral excite­ment. Just as we got there we saw a police van drive up, sirens ablaze, and stop right in front of the Plaza. We all stared. Then came the fre­netic cry for the Legal Work­ing Group. Legal ran over, spoke with the police, and we stood by as more police­men began to amass on the Plaza. There was gen­eral con­fu­sion when it became clear that the Police were going to destroy every­thing we had just moved to Thomas Paine Plaza. Some said we should hold the new Plaza, some said we should return, some thought we should esca­late the con­flict by storm­ing City Hall. In brief, the mere pres­ence of the police was enough to throw the entire oper­a­tion into dis­ar­ray.

But why should it have? Shouldn’t we have expected the police to arrive? Shouldn’t we always expect them to oppose all of our actions in some way or another? In other words, why should the pres­ence of an expected ele­ment cause so much dis­or­der in the equa­tion?

In ret­ro­spect, it is sim­ply aston­ish­ing that none of the con­cerns raised dur­ing the sev­eral hours of the Gen­eral Assem­bly directly men­tioned the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing to face the police that night. None of them asked what we should do in case the police arrived. None of them won­dered if there were any con­tin­gency plans. In fact, almost no one was seri­ously think­ing about what our ene­mies might be doing at that moment. We were just star­ing at our own camp, decid­ing whether we should move to Rit­ten­house or Thomas Paine, rather than talk­ing about what might be going on the camp of the oppo­si­tion, rather than think­ing two moves ahead.

It should be admit­ted, how­ever, that the police were them­selves unusu­ally unpre­pared that night. Sev­eral occu­piers recall how the police seemed uncer­tain about how to pro­ceed, that many of them were almost entirely unaware that we had made a deci­sion to move the entire camp. But, at the end of the day, even though the police were rel­a­tively unpre­pared, the truth is that we were even more unpre­pared. And that cost us an oppor­tu­nity.

I think it’s safe to say that in large part the pecu­liar police détente at Occupy Philly lulled many of us into a sense of pas­siv­ity. We hadn’t expe­ri­enced crack­downs like those in New York or Oak­land. We were given a per­mit, given our space, and largely left alone. The con­se­quence was that we sim­ply assumed such a state of affairs would con­tinue into the future. We were unop­posed when we entered Dil­worth so why should they oppose us when we move to Thomas Paine? One might say we mis­tak­enly took an excep­tional case for a gen­eral con­di­tion.

Per­haps the most impor­tant con­se­quence of that night, how­ever, was this changed atti­tude towards the police. It imme­di­ately dawned on us all that hence­forth we had to think about what we would do if we were in the police’s shoes, we had to study their posi­tion, we had to plan for all pos­si­ble responses on their part, and we had to pre­pare responses to their responses. We can’t afford to take another action with­out antic­i­pat­ing the actions of the forces of order.

Who’s Got The Map?

As we relo­cated to Thomas Paine Plaze we were met by var­i­ous occu­piers try­ing to help rebuild the camp as coher­ently as pos­si­ble. With hun­dreds of occu­piers rush­ing from one plaza to the other, it was imper­a­tive that we had some peo­ple orga­niz­ing the whole process, to let every­one know were the new Library, for exam­ple, would have to be con­structed, where the Infor­ma­tion Work­ing Group would have to reset­tle, where all the tents would have to be erected, and so on. But while some occu­piers had already sketched out a map to help recon­struct the camp, few knew about it, and what’s worse, the map itself seemed to be miss­ing. So the arrival of the first wave pre­dictably caused a bit of con­fu­sion. “Should we send them back until we fig­ure out where every­thing goes?” Impos­si­ble. So the waves kept com­ing, the dis­or­der grew, and quite a num­ber of occu­piers didn’t know where to go. The library, for exam­ple, ended up in the wrong place. But before we could relo­cate it, the police arrived.

This sit­u­a­tion was unsur­pris­ingly aggra­vated once they entered the pic­ture. First we decided to move every­one from Dil­worth to Thomas Paine to for­tify the newly cap­tured posi­tion. Then, when the Police gave the order to dis­perse, many began to move every­thing back from Thomas Paine to Dil­worth. As I already men­tioned, one group stayed at Thomas Paine to decide what to do, another regrouped back at Dil­worth, and the third decide to storm City Hall. So instead of com­ing together in a com­mon refusal, the move­ment shat­tered into sev­eral iso­lated groups. Only after the dust set­tled, after are defeat had been con­firmed, did we recon­vene again as a total­ity.

If there is any­thing we learned from that night, it’s that even the most seem­ingly sim­ple oper­a­tion – mov­ing one camp just across the street – requires sig­nif­i­cant prepa­ra­tion. A clear set of plans has to be com­posed before the action, it has to be dis­trib­uted to all par­tic­i­pants so every­one can oper­ate in har­mony, and it has to include con­tin­gency mea­sures. Every­one has to agree ahead of time, for instance, that if the police arrive, we will hold our ground. Instead, that deci­sion had to be made on the spot, within var­i­ous affin­ity groups, and by then, every­thing was irrepara­bly split. I’m not say­ing we shouldn’t make these kinds of imme­di­ate deci­sions on the spot, as it were, but only that every­one has to be pre­pared – and every­one must expect – to make them. In other words, we have to pre-orga­nize the space for suc­cess­ful spon­ta­neous action.

A Meet­ing of the Tribes?

My imme­di­ate sense is that while the occu­pa­tion as a whole suf­fered from con­fu­sion, there was sig­nif­i­cant orga­ni­za­tion, effi­ciency, and celer­ity among the indi­vid­ual work­ing groups, cau­cuses, or affin­ity groups that com­pose Occupy Philly. Those involved with the library, for instance, fer­ried books, shelves, crates, tables, and posters – in fact the entire library – from one Plaza to the other in just fif­teen min­utes. Then, when the order was given to dis­perse, we deter­mined our options, dis­cussed the choices before us, and quickly made the deci­sion to move every­thing back from Thomas Paine to Dil­worth – some of us mak­ing the move while oth­ers went to get a van in which to secure all the mate­rial in case of an imme­di­ate evic­tion. The books were then loaded into the van, unloaded at another site, and the group recon­vened at Dil­worth. A small endeavor, no doubt, but one which speaks to the effec­tive­ness of small groups com­posed of indi­vid­u­als who are accus­tomed to work­ing with one another.

The prob­lem, how­ever, seemed to be while there was much cohe­sive effi­cacy within each of these groups – and the library was only one of many – there was lit­tle inter-group cohe­sive­ness. Despite its many suc­cess, Occupy Philly, it appears, has not yet dis­cov­ered a way to make affin­ity groups work with each other in moments of ten­sion. Per­haps we need to look to dif­fer­ent forms of orga­ni­za­tion, like the “Spokes Coun­cil” model, which has been tested at other occu­pa­tions. Or per­haps we have to look beyond the occu­pa­tion as tac­tic. It may be that the very struc­ture, or logic, of the occu­pa­tion tac­tic has itself fore­closed the pos­si­bil­ity of pro­duc­tive inter-group rela­tion­ships. I think, in Philly at least, it may be time to move on to some­thing else.

Lost Illu­sions

It seems Thurs­day night was a nec­es­sary defeat. It dis­abused many of us of cer­tain illu­sions, it reframed our rela­tion­ship with the state, and it changed our broader under­stand­ing of this move­ment, its rela­tion­ship to speci­fic tac­tics, and the con­tra­dic­tions within it. There is no ques­tion that Thurs­day rep­re­sents an implicit rup­ture in the tra­jec­tory of the move­ment here in Philadel­phia. Our task now, I think, is to make it explicit. The worst thing we can do is – to para­phrase a sug­ges­tion made Thurs­day night after the police with­drawal – to regroup and try to take Thomas Paine again in the morn­ing. This would be noth­ing other than a doomed com­pul­sion to repeat. It would mean ignor­ing our mis­takes by try­ing to efface them, it would sig­nify a fail­ure to exploit the numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties that have emerged from this defeat.

On May 15, 1848 an immense demon­stra­tion was orga­nized in Paris in response to the pre­cip­i­tous degen­er­a­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion that had begun just under three months ago. When the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment was declared on Feb­ru­ary 25, 1848 in the Hôtel de Ville, the pro­le­tariat saw a chance to deepen their autonomous power. Things turned sour, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary clubs were harassed, elec­tions were invoked to under­mine the momen­tum of the oppo­si­tion, and now, find­ing them­selves on the verge of defeat, the work­ing class decided to make a show of their power. Con­fused, unable to inter­ro­gate the rea­sons behind their con­tin­u­ing defeat, unwill­ing to con­front the changed con­junc­ture, and fear­ing an immi­nent crack­down, they made the last-min­ute deci­sion to invade the National Assem­bly, storm the Hôtel de Ville, and announce a new, this time more rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment in the very same room in which the first one was declared back in Feb­ru­ary. All we had to do, they thought, was repeat it again; this time, with new peo­ple, it will be dif­fer­ent. It wasn’t. They lost that night, and they would have lost even if they had suc­cess­fully held City Hall – the his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture had shifted in such a way that the entire tac­tic had to be changed.

I think it’s time we changed ours.

Salar Mohan­desi is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UPenn, and an edi­tor of View­point.


Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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