With a $55 million construction contract “imminent” for Dilworth Plaza — home since early October for Occupy Philadelphia – the city trade unions and those in Occupy Philly determined to hold-out in the Plaza have arrived at a showdown.
Everything in life is a dialogue with something, and that goes for the bottom-up/top-down dialogue known as the Occupy Movement. The Philadelphia Police are the well-armed arbiter in the middle of this dialogue with the city. The dialogue, however, just got more complicated with the entrance of the job-hungry trades union.
“We have a dilemma,” Pat Gillespie, head of the city Building and Construction Trades Council, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. While in “full sympathy” with Occupy Philadelphia on the larger economic fairness and justice issues, Gillespie said he and his union were determined to get to work on the 800 plus jobs in the Dilworth construction contract. Gillespie offered union workers to help Occupy Philly members move their belongings across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza – or wherever they might decide to move. The matter was to be taken up at the next Occupy Philly general assembly.
On Wednesday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter posted an eviction order for Dilworth Plaza, citing the planned re-design project that the notice says is to start “imminently.” He ordered occupiers to leave the plaza “immediately.” The construction work is to be done by the Daniel J. Keating Company.
The $55 million project uses federal, state and other funds and is billed as a job stimulus project to last 27 months. The project has reportedly been planned for two years. It will feature a café, a market and skating rink in winter. The city’s promotional material claims 185,000 people live or work within a ten-minute walk of City Hall and will use the renovated public space. Critics say the $55 million should have been prioritized for low-income housing or other more needed projects.
A friend familiar with union issues in Philly said things could get dicey if the hold-out members of Occupy Philly don’t agree to move and allow the jobs-program to begin. Half-joking, he said trade unionists might turn on the occupiers and do their own “eviction.”
As for the police in the equation, last week, while at Occupy Philly one evening, I had an interesting conversation with some talkative police officers. A sergeant who told me he had been shot twice in the line of duty assured me cops were “part of the ninety-nine percent” that Occupy Philadelphia was so concerned about.
“I totally agree,” I said. “But the problem is then cops turn around and do the bidding of the one percent.”
Cops never feel comfortable debating citizens, so he didn’t dispute me. He certainly knew what I was talking about. The fact is, police officers, class issues aside, are about keeping order in the vertically organized hierarchy of control found in any major city in America. And if the order came down from the top, they’d go through Dilworth Plaza like Patton’s “crap through a goose.”
On the other end of the organizational chart, the Occupy Movement — especially those citizens who chose to live in tents on Dilworth Plaza — is a now famously “horizontally-organized” entity. Thus, all the complaints from vertically-oriented people that there are no spokespersons or leaders to deal with. Consensus is always a hard thing to define, but consensus is what guides the core of the Occupy Philadelphia movement, a self-contained community of mostly dis-empowered people living in several hundred tents nestled up against the west side of City Hall, dead-center in the middle of Philadelphia on Dilworth Plaza.
I recently spoke with Philadelphia Police Department Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, a tall, diplomatically-inclined man who expressed the city’s frustration with this kind of organization: “We can’t talk with 400 people,” he said. What Sullivan wanted was someone from Occupy Philadelphia to speak in a vertically-oriented language he could understand.
This conversation was following the 2am military assault by New York Police on Zuccotti Park and a similar assault in Oakland. Occupiers in Philly were on alert. Sullivan assured me that Mayor Nutter did not want a confrontation or to evict people with a military assault like the one in New York. City officials had earlier assured occupiers the Philadelphia Police would not evict anybody without giving ample advanced notice, which they have now given. And so far, the Philadelphia Police Department, compared to New York and Oakland, has been quite reasonable in how they have responded to the Occupy Movement.
“A police department of our size could do it easily,” Sullivan said, referring to an assault on the site. So it’s not for lack of capacity that the PPD is not planning to sweep through the City Hall encampment. “We don’t want to go that way. It does no one any good.”
It was at an evening general assembly before the eviction notice was posted that occupiers voted to defy the expected notice and not to re-locate. The site most often mentioned for relocation is Thomas Paine Plaza, a square expanse of concrete across the street from City Hall and adjacent to the Municipal Services Building.
There are certainly forces in the city government and the Philadelphia Police Department who would love to assault the Occupy encampment. So far, these reactionary forces have been kept in check. There has also been disagreement within the Occupy Philadelphia movement. For example, the Reasonable Solutions Working Group is for moving and working with the city. They are very concerned that the homeless involved in Occupy Philly not be abandoned in the moving process.
On the rainy night that the Mayor’s eviction order was first posted, the core hold-out Occupy group had a spirited candlelight vigil on the Plaza. There was a lot of emotional bonding that seemed to strengthen the determination to hold out. A march to “close down” one of the city’s bridges was scheduled for the next day, Thursday, and arrests were anticipated. Also on Thursday, Occupy Philly literally “occupied” City Council and theatrically used their people’s mic to call up and give their vote on the day’s agenda items. Then they left. There were apparently too many occupiers for police to remove from the chambers without creating a major PR disaster. That’s horizontal thinking with some wit.
Both the City and the hard core element of Occupy Philly, in their own ways, have seemed reluctant to recognize the other, lest they might give away too much negotiating power. Plus, as I have witnessed, a very powerful human bonding dynamic among an assortment of pissed-off, disaffected and dis-empowered people has grown under the umbrella of Occupy Philly. The desire to hold out and fight for Dilworth Plaza — the site of this extraordinary bonding — is therefore understandable. But how it may relate to the larger Occupy Movement message is a good question.
Given the Dilworth construction project is a pet of the powerful city trades union and it will certainly be characterized by the city and by the city’s media as an FDR-like job stimulus project, many other questions hover in the air. Like, is it really critical for the movement to hold Dilworth Plaza? More specifically, since it seems clear the city is committed to the project, does such a hard-headed, principled attachment to Dilworth Plaza and an inevitable collision strengthen or hinder the Occupy Movement and what it stands for?
Philadelphia Wins the Wealth-Gap Lottery
Philadelphia, it turns out, is a leader in the growing gap between rich and poor. A new report from Stanford University, in conjunction with Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation, shines some interesting light on why the larger economic issues right under our noses in the Philadelphia area are significant for the Occupy Movement.
The study examined shifts in family income in 117 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and emphasizes what any half-aware American citizen should know by now, that the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer — and in the process, the rich are segregating themselves so they don’t have to even see the poor.
When it comes to rising income segregation since 1970, Philadelphia and its suburbs are the dubious winner among the 117 metropolitan areas. The Philadelphia region, The New York Times reported, is “a red stripe of wealthy suburbs curving around a poor, blue urban center, broken by a few red dots of gentrification. It is the picture of the economic change that slammed into Philadelphia decades ago as its industrial base declined and left a shrunken middle class and a poorer urban core.” The inner city community of Germantown is cited as the worst hit in this decline.
I moved from the panhandle of Florida to Philadelphia in 1975 to attend graduate school in Journalism at Temple University. I had never lived in a major city, and I moved into Germantown. I worked for years on a community ambulance running throughout Germantown. I worked several years for The Germantown Courier. I think as I lived there and wrote about the community’s problems I actually fell in love with the community.
The story of the weekly Courier newspaper is instructive. I was part of a group of “young Turk” reporters who felt just like I did. We were fiercely motivated. One year we won “best weekly” in the state of Pennsylvania from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers’ Association. But, then the following year we got slammed by the world of finance: the Wall Street owners of the little community newspaper decided our enterprise was bad for their business, and they eviscerated the little paper’s budget and effectively destroyed it.
I had won a PNPA award for an investigative story on red-lining of Germantown residents by home-owners insurance companies. People in tall buildings in places like New York and Chicago were deciding not to grant Germantown residents home-owners insurance based on some remote, at least partially racist, decisions that had nothing to do with community life in Germantown. So I’m not surprised to see Germantown’s demise hit the top of the charts in the Stanford study.
I’ve since moved on and now live in Whitemarsh Township, a comfy community in Montgomery County directly west of Germantown. I live in a cul-de-sac off Germantown Pike. Five years ago, the Whitemarsh Police Department was cleaned out by the FBI for racist and predatory attitudes exhibited by some of its ranking police officers. Cops tended to lay in wait for African Americans driving through the community on their way to a mall on Germantown Pike. Being poor, broken taillights and overdue inspections were a good bet. Things are much better now, but it’s a rich suburban force, and studies have shown police officers in such communities often see their job as keeping the community secure from dangerous outsiders and out-of-step misfits.
Thus, I can sometimes feel pretty complicit in this regional inequality mess. This may explain why I’m so much in solidarity with the message of Occupy Philadelphia. The city and its residents have gotten a very raw deal over the past 40 years. And the growing economic segregation can only be making the situation worse.
On-Site With Occupy Philadelphia
At the Tuesday night General Assembly I attended, the odor of urine was quite detectable in the air, and I noticed considerable chalk and paint graffiti on City Hall walls. About 120 people gathered for the meeting, which was undertaken utilizing the peoples’ mic. A facilitator in a motorized wheelchair deftly fielded the various “clarifying questions” and “friendly amendments.”
Those attending voted to have a much-needed major clean-up-day every two weeks, alternating on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They voted to better represent all the various working groups on the Facebook Committee. And they voted to hold the candlelight vigil the next night
One man in his fifties sitting down in front had the aspect of an alcoholic from the school of very hard knocks. I’d heard him earlier tell another man, “Wherever I pass out is where I live.” I also recalled him from a previous night earnestly speaking with a police captain, trying to explain to the man what the occupation was about. The captain was polite but only half-listened.
During the meeting, this man had been raising his hand and yelling, “Mic check. Mic check,” which indicates someone wants to speak — in phrases that are, then, repeated by the attendees so all can hear. The man’s repeated calls were ignored until towards the end of the meeting, when he again yelled “Mic check!” and — to his apparent surprise — everyone stopped to let him speak. He marshaled his thoughts and gave a spirited and sensible call for better care of the mentally disabled.
“There are lots of insane people out here,” he said, slurring his words. The crowd repeated the sentence. Then he said: “And I’m insane!” There were a few, good-natured laughs and the crowd repeated the phrase: “And I’m insane!”
A wide, bright smile grew on the man’s face. He had been recognized, had had some input and was part of the group. It was a matter of dignity and belonging. Here was a man who clearly had fallen low; yet, he was still ready to fight for positive change for people like himself and for others. Maybe it wasn’t very significant in the larger picture, but it was quite moving to watch.
Two well-spoken homeless men explained to me later why they were there. Both African American, Nathan was in his forties and Kenny in his fifties. Both had called Dilworth Plaza home before it was taken over by the Occupy Movement. They liked having all the Occupy people around.
“I feel good with all these people around,” Kenny said. “It’s less likely for something crazy to happen when you’re asleep.” He shook his head at how dangerous life on the street can be. “All I want is a roof over my head and something in my refrigerator. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want to live and let live.” He was quite pessimistic about the possibility for real change.
Nathan was more optimistic. He felt the Occupy Movement served an important social and educative function. “It has made people aware of issues of poverty,” he said. “People who never knew anything about poverty can now learn about it.”
What particularly interested him was getting across to people who had jobs and comfortable lives how difficult it was to re-gain one’s grip once one had lost his or her hold on a stable life – even a solid poor, working life.
“It’s very difficult to get back into the game,” Nathan said.
As I write this, I realize Nathan’s observation also applies to entire communities that have lost their grip — like Germantown, which is a few miles northwest of City Hall. This shift occurred over decades, a story of middle class and poor citizens gradually losing ground while the well-off in America accumulated more wealth and began to circle their gold-plated wagons.
“There should be a degree of discomfort to get the attention of politicians,” a young occupier named Pete told me. He was a sociology student at Temple University. “I want to see the movement grow,” he said.
A member of the academic brain trust behind the Occupy Wall Street’s success was ironically profiled in, of all places, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. David Graeber is an anarchist and an academic anthropologist who studies how debt works on people and societies. Anarchism for him is about “re-defining democracy” and figuring out how power actually works in the world. He told interviewer Charlie Rose, “You don’t worship authority as a thing in itself.” Anarchism is about “trying to re-imagine the world.”
Graeber sees no problem with re-negotiating or forgiving debt when the conditions out of which the debt rose change. In the case of institutions “too big to fail,” we already know how willing The State is to forgive debt. Basically, Graeber calls for clearing the deck so the world can move on to better things. “Debts are not sacred,” he says, “human relationships are.”
We now live in a very complex culture where –isms of all flavors work together — or against each other — to make up the sum of a globalized United States of America. That includes Capitalism, Socialism and even Fascism (think George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld). At this juncture in US social history, a little Anarchism in the sense of clearing the deck – ie. “re-imagining the world” — is arguably a good and healthy thing.
The fact the Philadelphia police can’t quite get a grip on engaging with the Occupy Movement is actually a good thing — sort of the whole point. It means they and those who control the established, top-down power that keeps everything locked up can’t just smooth-talk or intimidate a representative of the movement; instead, they must engage with the real-world ideas of social and economic justice the occupy movement is raising from the bottom up.
One hopes all sides in the current Dilworth Plaza impasse can negotiate the future wisely and peacefully. As it was eloquently put in a past struggle, the point is to keep our eyes on the prize, which in this case is the growth of the Occupy Movement into an even more effective movement for change.