Editor's Note: This is an update to a story we posted on Mon., Oct. 3, 2011. The occupation will happen 9 a.m. on Thurs., Oct. 6, at City Hall.
So far, neither pepper spray nor mass arrests have put a halt to Occupy Wall Street—if anything, it’s galvanized and intensified the 2-week-old movement. But if you think New Yorkers are pissed off, just wait until Philadelphia, the original cradle of the revolution, shows the world how it fights the power.
In solidarity with their exasperated comrades to the north—who’ve been gathered in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district since Sept. 17 to voice their frustrations with the wealth disparity between the haves and have-nots in America (as well as the lack of jobs, corporate greed, bank bailouts and myriad other issues)—hundreds of like-minded Philadelphians have joined together in the past week under the Occupy Philly banner.
Taking its cues from Occupy Wall Street and the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East, Occupy Philly is in the process of choosing a location and start date for its own protest encampment somewhere in the city, and at the same time trying to recruit more people to the cause. But while the burgeoning movement’s unified message and specific demands have yet to be clearly defined, there’s little doubt that protesters are fueled by enough passion and righteous anger to get Occupy Philly up and running and ready to make a scene.
Like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Philly has thus far been a leaderless movement, but it does have a handful of self-described facilitators trying to move the formation process along. Take Nikolas Zalesky, a 29-year-old father of two, who just got a job as an assistant financial planner after nearly two years on unemployment. Zalesky recently moved from his Northeast Philly apartment back to his parents’ home in Harleysville in order to make ends meet. A committed member of the Socialist party, Zalesky blames big Wall Street investment banking firms like Goldman Sachs for destroying the nation’s economy, leaving people like him as collateral damage and escaping accountability because of their sizable political donations. “They pay [politicians] for deregulation, they gamble with our money, they lose, they get bailed out and give themselves $13 million bonuses and we pay, and they don’t care,” he says. “People are fed up, and that’s why this is finally happening.”
Zalesky says he caught wind of the Occupy Wall Street plans a few months ago via several leftist websites, and when he saw the demonstration taking hold in lower Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, “it was a ‘wow’ moment. It was like a key fitting into a lock, and it just opened me up. I was like, ‘we need to do that here.’”
Fellow Philly facilitator Sean Kitchen set up an Occupy Philly Facebook page on Sept. 24, with Zalesky providing most of the status updates, and within a few days they had a couple thousand followers.
Last Thursday, an inaugural Occupy Philly planning meetup was scheduled to be held at the anarchist South Street bookstore Wooden Shoe. When it became clear that the expected participation was going to exceed what that small space could handle, the gathering was moved to the cavernous United Methodist Church across the street from City Hall.
About 150 people—some wearing Guy Fawkes masks, others blowing horns, many shouting: “We are the 99 percent!” (a reference to the oft-cited distinction between the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent and everybody else)—marched from Wooden Shoe to the church, along with a police escort, where they joined with 200 more people standing on the sidewalk.
“I’ve been waiting for this since I left my parents’ home 50 some years ago,” exclaims 70-year-old South Philly resident Jacob Russell, who sports a black bowler hat and feathers dangling from both earlobes as he rails against the rich hoarding the nation’s wealth. “These kinds of movements have brought about changes,” he insists. “It was the threat of revolution of the homeless coming to Washington in 1932 that helped motivate FDR to pass progressive legislation. This can work, and I’m prepared to give my life to make this succeed.”
Nearby, 20-year-old Ron (who declines to give his last name) says Occupy Philly seems like a good way for him to channel his dismay over losing his job at the South Street Diner a month ago. “People need to realize that when we’re together, the people at the top will fear what we can do,” he says.
Meanwhile, facilitator Amanda Geraci—a 29-year-old from West Philly—recounts her experiences at Occupy Wall Street the previous week, where scores of protesters were arrested and in one widely reported incident, an NYPD officer pepper-sprayed a group of protesters who didn’t appear to be doing anything illegal or posing a threat. “It was intense, it was beautiful, a little scary,” she says. “I had a lot of friends that got arrested or were roughed up by the cops. But the amount of solidarity surrounding the response to the police was amazing. Nobody got violent. Nobody was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m going home, they win.’ They were like, ‘We expected this and we’re gonna keep going on.’”
Zalesky says that while there is, of course, the potential for violence—or that some people might try to hijack the thus-far-peaceful movement for their own pernicious purposes—he doesn’t envision a scenario in which Occupy Philly turns into a riot. “We don’t outgun the police force, so I don’t think anyone wants to fight a battle they’re guaranteed to lose, and in the process lose our cause and our respect,” he says.
Inside the church, the somewhat slapdash three-hour meeting is spirited, contentious and joyful all at once—much like how one imagines the debates between the framers of the U.S. Constitution may have gone, except, you know, with plenty of women and people of color participating in the decision-making, too.
In keeping with the protocol established by Occupy Wall Street, curious hand gestures are a part of the proceedings—participants raise their arms and wiggle their fingers when they agree with what someone has to say, lending an even more religious-style fervor to the get-together than the surroundings already provide.
Logistical issues dominate the meeting. Geraci and two other facilitators guide the animated discussion toward setting up medical, safety, food, comfort, outreach, bathroom and trash committees, though people repeatedly stand up to declare what the occupation’s primary message should be.
“The Federal Reserve is corrupt!” one shouts.
“We need a resource-based economy,” says another.
“People of color are being exploited!” yet another says. “We can discuss the message next time, we need to get through this stuff tonight,” pleads one facilitator.
While people filed into the Arch Street United Methodist Church for the better part of an hour last week, chanters tested the harmony of their voices. Occupy Philly protesters will begin occupying City Hall on Thursday at 9 a.m. In a decision made at the packed, standing-room-only 900-person-capacity United Methodist Church on Arch Street near City Hall [...]
Close to 400 people turned up at the United Methodist Church at Broad and Arch streets last night for the first meeting of Occupy Philly—a planned demonstration/camp-in and show of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan over the past two weeks that’s been garnering increasing media attention and spawning similar groups [...]