Last fall, Boston reporter Chris Faraone chronicled Occupations around the country.
On the third day of Occupy Philly’s encampment last October, Boston Phoenix reporter Chris Faraone hopped off a bus at the Greyhound Terminal on Filbert Street and went in search of an Occupy march he’d been monitoring on Twitter during his ride up from Baltimore. Near the Liberty Bell, he found it, falling in with 200 or so chanting, sign-carrying Occupiers marching west toward City Hall.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, this is it, this is Occupy Philly,’” says Faraone. But as the group circled City Hall, he spotted another 500 marchers heading toward them from Love Park. And then he saw all the tents, the banners and the hundreds more Occupiers who had taken over Dilworth Plaza. Holy shit , Faraone thought. “It was bigger than Occupy Wall Street. People were going nuts all over the place.”
As Faraone wandered around Dilworth, taking it all in with notepad in hand, the unyielding thunder from the giant drum circle battered his brain. He watched, amused, as a naked demonstrator darted through the boisterous sea of humanity, chased by two plainclothes Philly cops. Eventually, Faraone ran into an old college buddy, an experienced activist, who just shook his head. “He said to me, ‘Man, this is absolute anarchy—nobody is really interested in listening to anything you have to say … it’s total chaos.’”
Based on what he saw, Faraone couldn’t help but agree. “The energy was great, but Philly just seemed so huge and pretty out of control at the beginning, especially compared to OWS or Boston,” he recalls. “In retrospect, I don’t know if that hurt or helped. I think it might have hurt.”
Indeed: Less than two months later, Occupy Philly got the big, ugly boot from the city. Now, six months after the start, looking at Dilworth Plaza—reduced to rubble by construction crews—and considering the movement’s virtual invisibility since eviction, it feels like it never happened at all.
But it did, and Faraone wanted to ensure that that revolutionary moment in time wasn’t forgotten. In addition to his intensive Phoenix coverage of Occupy Boston’s Dewey Square encampment from its beginning to its bitter end, the 32-year-old reporter—almost like a tornado chaser—traveled around America last fall and winter, visiting a dozen cities where Occupations touched down. Philadelphia was one of the earliest stops in his quest to gain a comprehensive, ground-level view of the movement.
Faraone’s odyssey is detailed in his illuminating and entertaining new book, 99 Nights With the 99 Percent: Dispatches from the First Three Months of the Occupy Revolution. It’s a time capsule of sorts—a collection of features, essays, profiles and blog posts originally published in the Phoenix (with brief hindsight observations prefacing each), along with a few previously unpublished pieces, photos galore and 100 haikus—or “Occupaikus,” as Faraone calls them—that provide a creative timeline of significant Occupy events around the nation during the last three months of 2011. (e.g. “Nov. 3, Day 48: Oakland is on fire/Flash bang grenades riot cops/Bad for tourism.” )
Throughout the fall, Faraone made a couple trips back to Philly, and even when he was back in Boston—or visiting camps in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and elsewhere—he kept in touch with Philly Occupiers and an eye on their Internet livestream. And much of his reporting from Occupy Boston that appears in 99 Nights mirrors situations that went down here. Grifters embezzling Occupy funds. Veteran activists passing on their wisdom to neophyte protesters. Tensions developing between Occupiers and city officials, or city residents hostile to the movement. Occupiers dividing along racial lines. The steady disintegration of the encampment with the influx of the city’s homeless population and the exodus of early Occupy organizers.
If the book is a snapshot of the (recent) past, 99 Nights is also instructive going forward, especially in light of Occupy Philly emerging last weekend from what seemed like a winter hibernation with a temporary re-encampment at Independence Mall. Faraone’s writing—as well as his outsider perspective on Occupy Philly shaped by his extensive travels—offers local Occupiers a chance to consider what the movement got right and wrong as they plan their spring and summer initiatives.
Occupy Philly, says Faraone, did plenty of good during its 56-day encampment last fall. “At its best, they’re an added and needed force to get people in the streets to protest these issues that truly affect your life,” he insists. At Dilworth, he adds, “it was great seeing political novices show up and start to read books by [social activist and historian] Howard Zinn and actually get educated. My guess is a lot of people became more educated during two months of Occupy Philly than they were before that at school.”
And one of Occupy Philly’s biggest points of pride—spooking U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) into canceling a speech about income inequality at Penn’s Wharton School in mid-October—was a watershed moment for the national movement, says Faraone. “Through that, Occupy showed it’s a force, that they scare people and they could really have an effect on the national debate.”
But if the colorful chaos of Occupy Philly’s first week or two quickly devolved into aimlessness and indecision—it wasn’t just media and critics of the movement who suggested that was the case, but also some Occupiers who grew frustrated with the lack of tangible accomplishments and bailed—Faraone says the disorganization may have had something to do with Philly’s close proximity to New York.
“A lot of the serious organizers from Philly had already got going on Wall Street, and sure, they’d come back and visit Philly but really they were Occupy Wall Street to the core,” he says. “People with that level of commitment, it would have been nice to have more of them in Philly all the time helping run the show.”
Some observers argued that the proudly leaderless movement perhaps could have used a leader—even locally, if not nationally—to make decisions and keep things on track and tightly focused. But, Faraone maintains, for the good of Occupy “that can’t happen. The way it works now, it’s hard for someone who’s having a hard time with the movement to look at this huge mass of messages and people and just write that off. But it’s very easy to look at one person and go, ‘Ohhh, OK, this asshole is running this? Forget it.’ It’s one of Occupy’s great strengths that it’s a free-for-all, but it can be a weakness, too, and Occupy Philly could have done a way better job of getting organized.”
Faraone also contends that most of the Occupations—Occupy Philly included—could have handled their media relations better. While commending the movement as a whole for trying to be transparent, Faraone says that from Wall Street to the Bay Area he encountered a general mistrust, and sometimes hostility, toward the media; he recalls occasional flare-ups with Occupy reps who tried to lecture or scold veteran reporters on how they should be covering the movement.
“I don’t like being fuckin’ told what I can and cannot write,” says Faraone. He explains how he caught flak for his Nov. 14 Phoenix piece (which appears in 99 Nights) about Paul Fetch—a 27-year-old con man accused of embezzling hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars from Occupy Boston, and who had previously gained some notoriety for his bizarre online persona and claims that he was the leader of the shadowy hacker collective Anonymous (Gawker had run a blog post about Fetch in 2008). Faraone called out Occupy Boston for not looking into Fetch’s background before entrusting him with their money. “Had Occupiers done their homework—i.e. Googled him—they’d have thought sooner to keep extra eyeballs on [him],” Faraone wrote. The story embarrassed Occupy Boston, and Faraone became persona non grata around Dewey Square for a while.
“A lot of Occupiers wouldn’t talk to me because other Occupiers were mad at me for reporting that, but you bet your ass some people walked up to me at the camp saying, ‘Thank you for writing that story.’ Most of the ones that were mad, it wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t want the story to get out, they just wanted it out on their terms so they didn’t look bad. That kind of thing went on everywhere. They have a thing about controlling the message as tightly as possible.”
Faraone says that some of the most serious issues that plagued Occupy Philly also happened at most other encampments; situations few protesters envisioned when they initially gathered in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. For example, the movement’s difficulties in bringing people of color into the fold: Faraone blames something as simple and innocent as Occupy’s General Assembly procedures and protocols. “A lot of black people I spoke to were like, ‘You know what? Black people are really, really turned off by the whole standing-around-wiggling-your-fingers kinda thing,’” he says, alluding to the hand signals Occupiers used to support or reject proposals. “It really was a cultural thing.”
As racial divisions and resentments grew in the encampments, Faraone saw the difficulties Occupiers here and elsewhere had in bridging that gap. In 99 Nights, Faraone interviews Jamarhl Crawford of Boston’s Occupy the Hood group. Crawford’s comments echo many of the same concerns and frustrations black activists here expressed last fall about Occupy Philly—particularly that the movement was up-in-arms after just getting a taste of unemployment, wealth disparity, police harassment and other issues that had long afflicted minority communities.