Seven hours at Occupy Philly

15 Oct

As many of you know, I went to Occupy Wall Street last weekend for two days (Friday and Saturday). I was amazed by the level of  organization in the tiny (we’re talking maybe a little bigger than your high school basketball court) park. However, since it had become so visible (finally) in the media due to arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge the weekend before, it was totally packed. It was almost impossible to get involved in any real way, because there were so many people already there and set in their functions. Perhaps if I could go on a weekday during work hours I would encounter a different space. I felt more like an observer than a part of the protest, which is probably valid, since I really was. I did enjoy the break out student session where I met many other New Jersey college students who were also in town for the weekend.

On Saturday I observed a General Assembly at Washington Square Park. There were so many people, the People’s Mic had to echo in waves to the back so everyone could understand what was going on.

All in all, Occupy Wall Street was an excellent experience. I got to see how the movement works, which is through organized direct democracy. I also got to hang out with the Raging Grannies, which made the whole trip worth it.

This weekend I headed to Philly. I had no plan aside from the schedule posted to Occupy Philly’s facebook page. When I started walking over, it started to rain. The rain was not the issue. It was really the huge gusts of wind that were my problem. I had about a twenty minute walk to City Hall, where the Occupy camp is set up. Not entirely sure if anyone would even be there after the downpour, I carried on down Market to City Hall.

It stopped raining by the time I arrived (but not before my jeans got totally soaked) and there were, in fact, many people walking around. Market street goes out from either side of City Hall. I came up to the back and was met by this visual: police guarding the same metal bike-rack looking barricades used to prevent occupiers from getting onto Wall Street. These barriers stretched around half of the building, with an opening in the back for city employees to enter. The only part of City Hall without barricades is the front, where Occupy Philly is set up. There are closed gates separating the inside of City Hall from the Occupy encampment. There may be a myriad of reasons for this, including recent vandalism that Occupy Philly does not claim and does not support. Anyway, this certainly put me on my guard as I continued on to find the camp.

I wandered around for a bit and oriented myself. I took pictures of wet signs. I got compliments on my “I want my tax dollars to support abortion access!” shirt. There is a septa stop that lets off right in the middle of Occupy Philly (super convenient!). The stairway coming up from the middle has a large circular opening (you can probably see it in some of the pictures from the protests here). Around this circle, there are many tents facing out. The library is here (there’s a library here and in New York too!), the message tent, the jobs with justice tent, and many others. I saw a group that looked approachable and walked over to them.

They were wonderful. I met J, a father, whose kids span in age from college age to elementary school. He is recently unemployed and his wife just graduated from a professional program for nursing. Their kids in college are both on scholarships, but they also have to take out loans and are accruing college debt every semester. We talked about the wars in Afghanistan, college loans and student debt, fracking and the cost of this natural gas obsession for communities whose water becomes toxic and undrinkable.

I also met B, who is a part of the local Workers World organization (it’s socialist. I bet you guessed that.) She also informed me about fracking. Her husband is a retired postal worker, and her son is in prison for a drug offense. She believes in a future where human good is the motivator for governance. We also talked about her experiences in Cuba and her views on the USSR (which are certainly different from mine).

I then headed over to the Messages tent, which had a big sign:

"What's the message? You tell us!"

I met the person running the tent (whose name escapes me) and he explained the process. The messaging working group is taking on the task of coming up with a sound bite that encompasses the complexity of Occupy Philly’s diverse demands through the use of a survey. It is an open survey, so no one has to choose from provided answers about what they think the movement is about. It has questions about the movement in general, and about the local and community concerns that Occupy Philly seeks to address. After they collected them yesterday, they’re going to take all of the answers and do two things: the first is determine, through the prevalence of similar answers, what Occupy Philly is “about.” I think this reflects the direct democracy process that undergirds the entire movement: the messaging working group could be creating this message themselves based on what they observe at General Assemblies, but instead they are using methods that allow the protesters’ words to define what the message is. The second part, that I will unfortunately not be around to see, is the creation of a word cloud from all of the answers. Once the word cloud is done, they’re going to project it onto the side of City Hall so everyone can see what the occupiers think the movement is about. The guy working the Message tent is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Penn, so we also had a nice long conversation about the difference between anthropology and sociology, and he explained some nuances of anthropology to me. This was super helpful, because I’m seriously considering anthropology as a discipline if I decide to go for a PhD. We also talked about the way that this movement is growing, and how the direct democracy governance works. He identifies as an anarchist, and I admitted that I’m a progressive liberal, but we had a really constructive conversation about Ron Paul-like ideas and the assumption that the state is the appropriate level for governance.

Next, I visited the library, or as it is called here at Occupy Philly “The Book Exchange.” According to the woman who was hanging out with the books, people just started bringing them to donate to the camp and that is how the book exchange began.

There was a march I hadn’t intended on participating in (because of the ankle I sprained on my way to Occupy Wall Street last week) but I ended up doing it anyway. It was awesome. First, they told us the number to call in case we were arrested and did a quick review of statements to remember if you are. Not gonna lie, that made me nervous, but I saved the number in my phone and took a position among the marchers. When we left, we were about half as large in numbers as when we got back to camp. People were constantly coming in off the sidewalk and joining in with the march. People of all ages, ethnicities, and apparent socio-economic backgrounds gave us signs of encouragement as we marched around the city. At one point, an elderly woman on her balcony gave us two or three thumbs down. I caught her eyes as I was chanting “We! Are! The 99 Percent! (And so are you!)” and gave her a peace sign and a smile. It was a really great feeling, because I finally felt a part of the movement. I really identify with what this movement is saying, as most of you who have talked to me/followed my tumblr posts/seen my facebook link spam would know. We stopped in front of the Apple store and did a people’s mic call out about the exploitation of the people who make Apple products (ending with a statement that we hope that we can have those products without that exploitative labor). We also stopped in front of Urban Outfitters to talk about their tax loopholes (they don’t pay local, state, or federal taxes). It was a really great public education direct action moment. People were taking pictures and video, and there were so many people giving us support through thumbs up, peace signs, solidarity fists, and applause. A lot of people working in the businesses we passed showed their support from the restaurants and shops where they were working. It was fantastic. Some people expressed concern at smaller numbers than last week, but others made the valid point that it was really wet and gross outside. It started raining on us at the very end of the march, but we kept going down Market to City Hall and never stopped chanting.

To escape the rain, I hopped back under the Workers World tent and ended up in a class on socialism and capitalism. Though I am more of a progressive than a socialist (and I think we need a new theory of economics outside of the capitalist/socialist binary), I really enjoyed the class. The organizer, Rob, was very good at facilitating discussion while allowing everyone to have a chance to speak their minds. The people in the meeting spanned unemployed, 40-something black adults struggling for their families, a college-aged young white man with Krohn’s disease and concerns about health care coverage, a white woman in her mid-thirties employed at a company focused on “increased productivity,” which is code for more work with less pay, and a young black man who self-identified as “working class,” saying that capitalism has been impacting him his entire life. There were also two female social workers, a family with three young daughters, and a Vietnam war vet and a Vietnam draft dodger. Many others came in and out of the discussion as it went on. It ended up taking two hours instead of the one hour assigned (which meant I missed dinner. I ended up eating an entire box of Trader Joe’s chicken noodle when I got back at 9:30) and I arrived at the General Assembly a few minutes late. Everyone’s knowledge was treated as worth hearing. The one issue I had was that the same (male) people felt comfortable controlling the conversation while I had to work twice as hard to to be heard. At one point, I tried to start a sentence three or four times with older men talking over me until the facilitator interrupted them and said it was my turn to speak. I also had this experience later when the General Assembly broke out into small discussion groups to talk about a proposal that had been brought by the legal working group. Usually, it took a white male recognizing my struggle to speak for my voice to be heard. In the sixties, women in the civil rights and church movements found that their ideas and voices were not respected. I would not say that this was my experience, because when I did speak my ideas were taken seriously and respected as valid knowledge. My difficulties lay in getting the opportunity to speak, which is not to lessen the importance of addressing these kind of gendered disparities in the movement.

When I finally got to the General Assembly, they were halfway through announcements from the working groups. At both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Philly, the occupiers use the People’s Mic to communicate ideas without microphones. Whenever the person speaking says something (which should be 1-4 words long), the people who can hear them repeat it to the people behind them. It works really well when people remember to project to the back.

I got to observe a decision making process while I was there. I didn’t see it through to the end, because I was hungry and cold and was not going to vote (since I am not a permanent member of Occupy Philly and may not be able to make it back this semester), but I was fascinated by the process of direct democracy.

First, the proposal was presented to the General Assembly through the People’s Mic. Then, the person facilitating the GA opens the “stacks.” This is a way for everyone who has something to say to get the chance to do so. The entire process is highly organized. First, the stacks are opened for “clarifying questions.” Everyone at the GA had one minute to get to the “stack-takers,” two people designated to record the names for the stacks and eventually count votes in the straw poll and final votes, so their name would be on the stacks. Once the stacks are closed, the stack takers go down the list and those on the stacks ask their questions to the person/working group presenting the proposal. The People’s Mic operates at every level of this process to make sure everyone hears what is going on. After the clarifying questions are asked, the stacks were opened for two minutes to concerns. Everyone on the stacks airs their concerns. After all of the concerns have been heard, there is a straw poll to determine whether the proposal should be rejected or whether the process should continue to “friendly amendments.” If there is not a clear majority rejecting the amendment, which happened with the first proposal put to the GA by the tech working group, the GA continues to “friendly amendments.” Amendments follow the same stacks procedure, giving everyone the opportunity to put their name on the stacks and offer an amendment. The amendments are heard one by one, and each amendment has its own clarifying questions and concerns process. Then, there is a final vote on each amendment offered. In the straw polls and the final votes, stack takers go into the crowd and physically touch every person with their hand raised to insure that all who vote are counted. After friendly amendments, any amendments passed are added to the proposal, and the proposal comes to a straw poll and a final vote. If the straw poll doesn’t show a clear majority, the General Assembly breaks up into small groups of people coming from all sides of the issue to discuss their views and talk about the proposal. Once five minutes of discussion has passed, everyone reassembles and new concerns coming out of those group discussions are shared through the stack process. I left at this point, because it was after 9 and I was seriously hungry and tired. I don’t know if it passed, but I was really impressed by how organized the process was and the commitment to real direct democracy that the occupiers show. There is an understanding that this process means that any decision making takes time, but there is a real commitment to the process.

I did notice some tensions at the meeting, though, which I’d like to discuss here very briefly (because this is already the longest blog post ever). A few questions were raised because of the nature of the proposal. The first was around the contention that occupations are inherently adversarial. Part of the proposal was about dealing with the city, and it made me wonder how you handle communications between a radical direct democracy and the structures that govern the city. If it is inherently adversarial, what does this mean for that relationship? The city has the power to evict the occupiers through force (though I have to mention that this occupation is happening about ten blocks from a large stone with the text of the first amendment, which includes the right of the people to peaceably assemble), as we have seen at other cities like Boston, and so it is in the interest of a continued occupation that they work with the city. For other occupiers, it is in the interest of a radical paradigm shift that Occupy Philly not follow tradition communication patterns with the city. This tension is just one piece of the complicated process that is direct democracy.

Another tension in direct democracy was the response of some who had helped craft the proposal to the concerns and demands of those in the General Assembly responding to it. It was obvious from their body language as they whispered in the background that they assumed they knew what was right for the proposal and the rest of the GA simply did not understand, or were not being realistic. In a direct democracy, one of the assumptions I have based on all of the processes is that everyone’s knowledge is valued. But, does direct democracy actually mean that everyone’s input is respected, or is it simply that everyone gets to have input? Is there space in this movement to break down our prejudices about where legitimate knowledge comes from and who can have it? I, for one, really hope so. Those on the working team behind the proposal did not seem to share this feeling. However, it can’t be easy to try to bridge the gap I mentioned before between the city and the self-identifying radical protesters.

Direct democracy is messy. This movement is complicated. It moves slowly because of the value placed on every person’s voice and vote having the capability to be heard. None of those who keep demanding a “clear message” or “specific demands” understand the nature of this process. There are more radical anarchist protesters alongside liberal protesters and socialists, but all of them have the opportunity to communicate their ideas and teach people about their perspectives. Occupy Philly has really helped me understand the movement at the level of the nitty gritty, the every day. I’m excited to go back in a few minutes (now that I’ve finished a delicious bagel at Old City Coffee on Church street) for the marches and rallies planned for today. I also volunteered to watch the tent for a while with the World Workers so some of the long-time volunteers can have a break. I want to make a sign, but I’m not sure what my sign would say.

Finally, I’d just like to address a couple general things about Occupy Together. First of all, whether you agree with the movement or not, I seriously recommend that you go out to the local events near you. There are events happening across the country and around the world. According to an article I read earlier, there are planned events in over 800 cities. Chances are there is one near you. If you think you’re familiar with the demands of the movement and you don’t think it represents you, go to the movement and represent yourself. The movement doesn’t identify itself with any political party or ideology, and those involved are incredibly diverse and united by anger about inequality in the United States and an understanding that the top 1% have been complicit in (if not entirely responsible for) these inequalities and the financial crisis in 2008. The movement is open to all ideas and all voices. This is a movement for you. This movement is ready to hear your voice. The 99% they are speaking to are obviously not all liberal, but the movement is concerned for all disenfranchised people. I’m not saying your ideas will not be met with discussion or argument, all ideas in a diverse direct democracy are up for debate. But, the movement won’t reflect you until you get into the movement. So get out there and do it!

Solidarity and love from Philly,

Me

(P.S. I published this using Occupy Philly’s free wifi)

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