One Week In, Occupy Philly Has First Polite Clash with the City
Today marks one week since Occupy Philly took over City Hall, with its dome tents scattered throughout Dilworth Plaza and its presence restricting normal public access to the iconic building’s courtyard.
It also marks a sea change in the movement’s momentum. The Occupiers have settled in and begun projects (like erecting shelters for homeless onsite), and they’ve begun coordinating with other cities. They also have its first major confrontation with the city looming: a planned construction project on the plaza.
Last night, Occupy Philly’s general assembly (which retreated indoors to the Quaker Friend’s Center on Cherry Street as rain began pummeling the soap-box meeting) discussed a letter Managing Director Richard Negrin sent to them through its legal committee.
The letter—which frequently reminds Occupy about the city’s support of protesters’ right to free speech and willingness to cooperate with the movement—asks that protesters move their tents to beyond 20 feet of the building. It also requests weekly, formal meetings with the Mayor’s Office, and informs the Occupiers that police have been conducting walk-throughs, taking photos of “minor deviations in the promises made to the city at the outset” (litter and urination). The letter also reminds Occupy Philly that the permit they signed stipulates they move when construction begins next month on a $50 million renovation project.
The project will renovate the subway stations below the plaza and create more green space around City Hall—as part of the city’s Greenworks initiative to reduce storm water runoff—as well as to build an ice-skating rink.
A representative from Occupy’s legal group said, “The letter said we agreed to move when construction starts, but in the permit it’s open-ended.” In other words, “They’re lying.”
The Occupation now has to decide whether they’ll move or face the force of the city’s police department. At the end of the assembly they decided to save the question for later, when more people came, since only about 50 people were present, presumably because of the rain.
But comments about the letter showed a distrust of the city. A young man said, “They know how to negotiate.” Another asked, “Is this police strategy, to ignore us and pretend they’re on our side and hope we go away?” A woman pointed out that since the city of Philadelphia is more broke than New York and can‘t rely on using police to break up the camp, it needs to use negotiations—something they’ve practiced since unions began striking during the Industrial Revolution. Another young man asked, “Why don’t that use that money for an ice-skating rink for books for the city’s children?”
As for meeting with the city, the legal team reminded Occupiers that the city was welcome to any of their daily general assemblies, which aren’t far from the city offices.
Meanwhile, the Occupation’s activities continue. Today at 9:30 a.m., Protecting Our Waters and Occupy Philly had planned to visit City Council to urge them to sue natural-gas companies for tainting water, and Occupy Philly will march to Sen. Pat Toomey’s office this afternoon. Tomorrow, they’ll march to Rittenhouse Square. On Saturday, Occupy Philly will march in solidarity with the National Day of Action to Independence Hall for an anti-war rally.
They’re planning on setting up their own broadcasting channel and blog; they’re asking for donations of wool for the coming winter months, indicating every intention of staying. Occupy Philly has a group working on fleshing out demands on the city, state, national and international level, following Occupy Wall Street’s lead, which has released its first official press release and working list of demands.
It’s difficult to determine how far their message is resonating with people who live and work around City Hall. As a gray morning broke on City Hall today, people who work at City Hall walked past the hulking masses of tents on either side with practiced dissociation, while a man in a striped suit scoffed (looking at this bleary-eyed reporter) and said, “Oh, God.”
And R.J. Smith, 26 from Providence, R.I., woke today in his damp makeshift camp, a tarp slung over a low wooden platform, for the fifth day of his hunger strike to support hunger strikes by prisoners in California. “I want to talk to the mayor,” Smith said, “to see what he thinks about this protest. I’d like to see what he thinks about it. I know he was here the first day, shaking hands; he was campaigning.”