As the cold wind whips past the rows of tents outside City Hall on the 31st morning of Occupy Philly, bleary-eyed Anthony Griggs slowly emerges from his tent and shakes out his blanket. Here since the start of the occupation on Oct. 6, the 51-year-old forklift operator from South Jersey says that before joining the movement to support “everyone fighting for more jobs,” he’d never done much camping, much less on the freezing, hard cement in the middle of a city. It hasn’t been easy. But he insists the experience has been transformative. “Before this, usually I just walked past people and never paid them no mind,” says Griggs, who’s been out of work for three months. “I didn’t worry about other people’s situations, just my own. But seeing what it’s like to live this way and talking to all these different people, now I’m thinking about everybody and their concerns.”
For those who’ve been a part of Occupy Philly since the first day, the one-month anniversary has given them the opportunity to reflect on how the movement has impacted their lives, how it’s fared in practice rather than theory, and what the future might hold.
Throughout the encampment, perspectives like Griggs’ are common. “Seeing people from all walks of life coming together and being so organized in standing up for what they believe in, it’s exciting,” says Jean, a 41-year-old freelance writer who joined the movement to demand health insurance and other benefits for contract workers.
In others, however, frustration is evident.
“I really hope we’re gonna finally get something out of this because, come on man, it’s been really cold every night,” says Mikhail, one of Jean’s tent-mates. The Russian-born 34-year-old—a former gas station employee who says he’s made his living the past year by playing backgammon for money—says he won’t be happy until Occupy protests force gas prices below $1 a gallon. “You don’t wanna be out here doing this and nothing changes,” he says. “It’s gonna make us look stupid. Like, just some noise by a bunch of crazy people who came for a couple months, protested and left.”
Nik Zalesky, one of Occupy Philly’s early organizers, says that the movement has gone a little more differently than he’d imagined at the outset. “I envisioned that everyone would get along and everyone’s concerns would be met, and that hasn’t always been the case,” says the 29-year-old. “I thought there would be more marches, and there aren’t. And because it’s direct democracy, it’s not as quick a process as many people might want. But we never said we were perfect, and we’re still working some things out.”
Still, Zalesky points to Occupy Philly’s (and the Occupy movement as a whole’s) accomplishments: Helping shame Bank of America into rescinding its plans for a $5-a-month debit-card fee. Compelling President Obama to unveil a new student loan-forgiveness program. “Chasing [U.S. House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor out of town,” Zalesky laughs. (Cantor, a vocal critic of the Occupy movement, canceled a scheduled Oct. 21 speech at Penn; Zalesky says Occupy Philly’s protest outside Penn “scared him off.”) And, he says, “we’ve changed the national conversation to where people are finally acknowledging there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system and the wealth disparity in this country.”
Yet even as it tries to transform the outside world, Occupy Philly’s internal dynamics are troubling to some. At the first Occupy planning meeting on Sept. 29, 41-year-old North Philly musician and artist Dayvt Vaune expressed to PW his concerns about unity among protesters. Six weeks later, the gregarious Vaune—at 6-feet-5-inches tall and with long dreadlocks, a distinctive presence at Occupy Philly—says that while he remains positive and has been inspired by the ideals at the heart of the movement, he’s disturbed by ongoing divisiveness along racial lines.
“We’re supposed to be out here seeking change, but what I find is a lot of people are following the same lanes that they’ve been following all along,” Vaune says.
For example, he says he’s seen many white people try to stifle discussions about slavery—and the lingering racism, poverty and social injustice borne from it—which is “at the root of black people’s anger at the system,” according to Vaune.
“They’re like, ‘That’s the past, we shouldn’t talk about it …’ Well, we need to talk about it so we can move past it,” he continues. Meanwhile, he says many minority protesters refuse to let go of their mistrust of whites and want to self-segregate from the rest of Occupy Philly. Vaune says he’s spent much of his time at the encampment trying to convince people otherwise.
“I’m like, for you to separate off—haven’t you watched the Nature channel? Animals that separate from the group, they get fucked up. We all gotta stick together.”
Zalesky claims there’s an even bigger schism: Protesters who want to maintain Occupy Philly’s low-key, cordial demeanor and others who want to ramp up the agitation factor via more belligerent sit-ins—echoing the tactics of Occupiers in Oakland, Boston and Wall Street—at banks and corporations, or by blocking bridges and roads. Which could potentially lead to police retaliation replete with tear gas and rubber bullets.
“Conflict can drive a news story a lot quicker than a bunch of people sitting around talking about the books in the library we’ve put together,” Zalesky admits. “But I don’t want to see that kind of violence happen here. It’s counter-productive.”
Shawn McMonigle—another distinctive Occupy denizen with his bushy red beard and long hair (some people have taken to calling him “Jesus guy” on Twitter)—doesn’t plan to start throwing rocks through windows, but he’s among those stirring things up a bit. The 24-year-old was one of nine people arrested during last week’s sit-in at the Comcast Center (he was detained for nearly 12 hours and charged with defiant trespass, a misdemeanor).
“I’m not sure I want to agitate beyond [sit-ins],” McMonigle muses. “For me, that’s just about trying to bring awareness to the movement. When arrests happen, people get interested.”
Many Occupy protesters who spoke to PW are resigned to an eventual PPD crackdown, perhaps by next week when the city intends to clear out Dilworth Plaza for a construction project. “The city’s cooperation has benefited us in many ways, but in no way do I believe they’re in support of what’s happening here,” says Ashlee Niedospial, 24. “There’s gonna come a day when they want us to leave, and then I think the city will show its true colors.”
Niedospial says she won’t go quietly: “If I don’t stand my ground and fight for the future of this movement, I think it will be the only regret I will ever have in my life.”
Griggs says he’ll bail if things start to get ugly. “I don’t need to get beat up by no cops,” he says.
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.
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide