When did it start?
Was it when financial institutions traded bad debt in the stock market? Was it when free trade agreements in the ’90s led manufacturers to close their plants in the United States and open them up in China?
To the people who can barely scrape together a living, it doesn’t matter when the Great Recession began. What does matter is how you’re going to pay the rent/mortgage, the credit-card bills you’ve racked up to buy groceries, and the oil you’ll need to keep your house warm this winter.
This is the struggle that brought some people to pitch tents outside City Hall last month and join Occupy Philly—a nonviolent resistance targeting people and corporations living large while others suffer, wielding the levers of economic power at home and lethal force abroad.
And compassion for those who are struggling to survive has brought some people to do the audacious: for example, staging a sit-in the Comcast Center to get arrested. Gwendolyn Snyder, executive director at Jobs for Justice, was one of the “Comcast Nine” detained Nov. 2, and she’s the bottom-liner for Occupy Philadelphia’s labor committee. She explains that Occupy Philly—one of hundreds of offshoots of Occupy Wall Street—is a response to economic conditions. “We’re seeing record unemployment. We’re seeing the continuing policies that benefit the richest people in our society, that treat corporations as people with the same rights as people.”
Having been participating in Occupy since Day 1, Snyder explains the demographic of those living in the tents. “I think we’ve got a wide range, from people on unemployment, to people who’ve got legitimate medical or behavioral issues that really need and deserve care and services that they haven’t been able to receive because of the central services cuts.”
Then there are the people who did everything right on the path to the American Dream. They got loans so they could go to college, or they used credit to start businesses. “(There are) folks who really have invested in getting an education, have worked hard to make sure they’re on the path to getting a job and were promised that if they paid for college, they got a job,” Snyder says.
And it all crumbled. They live in deteriorating conditions, scraping together a living half-mired in debt.
Alan Ford, 39, gestures to a high-rise apartment building north of Dilworth Plaza, asking, “What other purpose does a building like this serve but to elevate people over others?” He was a part of Occupy’s initial general assemblies but didn’t think he’d wind up being one of the occupiers—until his heating and air-conditioning business dissolved. He’s been living in Dilworth Plaza since Oct. 6, and works in the Safety tent.
Prefacing that his opinion doesn’t represent the rest of Occupy Philly, he says, “The divides in Philadelphia are very much socio-economic. Many of the people participating in the movement in Philadelphia were homeless before we occupied this space … The people who weren’t homeless before they came here who have begun to call this their home are now in the same position … Now they’ve got the label ‘homeless,’ like they’re less than us, as if they’re broken.”
“The main reason I’m here is … maybe there is a way we can actually make this whole thing work for everyone … the world will maybe operate fairly,” he continues. “For me that’s not about redistribution of wealth. It’s about changing the system we’re governing ourselves with so that it’s inclusive and not exclusive.”
Sitting on the steps of Dilworth Plaza, soon to be demolished in a 27-month construction project, he points towards the Comcast Center, the tallest building in Philadelphia. “Tell me, what is created in those buildings?” he asks. “What value to the human race is created, tangible value? What food is made there? What shelter, what clothes? What philosophy is generated there that benefits all mankind?” Having worked as a cooling and heating tech in those buildings, he says he hasn’t seen any.
“This is a conversation we all need to have,” he continues. “The middle-class job, the middle-class career that I had no longer supported a middle-class lifestyle.”
You may agree with Occupy Philly’s (albeit unclear at times) mission and goals. You may not. It doesn’t matter. Their anger is not going away. Which is why we think it’s time to reflect on the movement, one month in.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide