Occupy Philly and Independence HallPosted: November 30, 2011
Black Friday, Philadelphia, Pa.
My first look at Occupy Philly was after a free ride on the 9:52 Media Local, The Santa Train. This was not by plan but a matter of sheer coincidence. I should have guessed; I was the only one standing on the Morton platform without a small child in tow. But shortly after boarding, it was all too clear. The elves came first, wailing Jingle Bells and Wish You a Merry Christmas. They were followed by out-of-season Mummers dressed in holiday garb, belting out another round of X-mas cheer, complete with accordion, banjo and sax. Mrs. Claus assured the children that Santa was busy, busy at the North Pole, making sure all their wishes [even though edited to economic realities] would come true. And then, there was the free candy and balloon animals.
The magic of childhood! Where we can believe everything and anything. When the world appears kind and right and true.
An out-of-stater now, I deliberately got off at Suburban Station, my old work stop. Also, the stop at which I’ve frequently disembarked to attend exhibits at the Franklin Institute, the Museum of Natural History or the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a brisk walk west up the Parkway, past the Rodin Museum and the soon-to-open home for the controversy-laden Barne’s collection.
But not today.
This morning I headed east, winding through the underground towards City Hall and the Occupy Philly encampment. Later, I would team up with a friend and hoof down to the historic district. But right now, I had a different historical event in mind.
I no sooner hit the outside doors than the vivid blue of plastic tarps and tent tops were visible. A strange sight. Normally, I would have walked through the West arch at City Hall, stood for a few moments googling at the city’s Christmas tree. But this year was different. So different.
The western entrance to the City Hall complex was barricaded. ‘For Restoration’ the signs said. No towering tree this year. Instead, the Occupy tents decorated Dilworth Plaza, a strange but fascinating sprawl of makeshift living quarters and standard issue camping gear. The area was quiet and still, the air crisp. I circled around the entire plaza. No sight of my friend, so I headed back towards the encampment, spotted the medical and information tents, as well as a petition table outlining the dangers of in-state fracking by over-zealous gas drilling companies.
At the Information Tent there was an array of literature on upcoming actions, the November issue of the Occupy Wall Street Journal and several people discussing Mayor Nutter’s deadline to dismantle the encampment within 48 hours. Two of the occupiers said almost in unison: ‘It was never about the tents.’
So what is it about? It’s a question I read constantly on the blogs and in newspapers, even hear from family and friends.
Here’s what I learned in the morning hours I spent on the Plaza:
- In the 53 days of Occupy Philly, 26,000 local citizens signed on expressing support.
- At the height of the encampment, City Hall was encircled with tents, sleeping bags and a variety of makeshift living accommodations.
- Active supporters numbered around 200-300, some living on-site, others coming in to protest, march and rally during the day.
- Local Unions support the effort. In fact, the Trades Union offered to assist the protestors in the original plan to move off Dilworth to an encampment across the street. The Union needs those ‘renovation’ jobs. That idea was scrapped because permits were denied.
- The area was clean. No needles, drug paraphernalia or trash scattered about as the MSM would have readers/viewers believe taints all encampments. Talking to several encampment members, I was told a goodly portion of each day is spent ‘cleaning up.’
- The encampment/protest was peaceful. There was a sense of community and the overriding sentiment was to voice anger and dissent over the widening income inequality in the US and the corporate capture of all facets of government.
- I heard no political posturing or Obama shilling. Simply stated, the system is broken for the 99%.
- Forty to fifty of the encampment members were homeless. They joined for the free food and the safety of numbers.
- The police presence, even on this Friday morning, was unusually large but basically stationed within the confines of the City Hall plaza.
- Though Mayor Nutter had leveled a 48-hour deadline, there was no sense of panic or great urgency the morning I arrived. I later learned that the majority of the encampment was dismantled voluntarily Sunday evening and the homeless were moved elsewhere for their own safety.
- This morning [Wednesday 11/30 at 1:20 am, according to the Associated Press], the Philly police department began tearing down the remaining tents.
But as the protesters I spoke with said: It was never about the tents. It has always been about visibility—the eyesore of inequality, injustice and corruption.
I left Dilworth Plaza, and then headed down to Independence Mall. A surreal juxtaposition. In a matter of a few blocks, my friend and I walked from the current protest to the historical marker of the Mother of All Protests. Philadelphia is the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. We strolled through the portrait gallery installed in the Second Bank of the United States and the faces of those earlier protesters, that grand collection of merchants and farmers, philosophers and scientists, lawyers and bankers stared back. What would they be thinking? I wondered.
We went on to Carpenter’s Hall, where Benjamin Franklin reportedly had secret meetings with like-minded citizens prior to the Revolution. Years later, on leaving the Constitutional Convention, a woman reportedly asked Franklin what sort of government he and the others had designed. Franklin’s terse reply: ‘A Republic, Ma’am. If you can keep it.’
Our final stop was Independence Hall, which was originally the Pennsylvania State House. This was where the Second Continental Congress met, the Declaration of Independence was adopted and where the Constitutional Convention met to draft, debate, and then sign the US Constitution in 1787.
We’re a long way from who and what we were in 1787. But Franklin’s words have a haunting edge to them: ‘A Republic, Ma’am. If you can keep it.’ Another quote that’s perhaps equally pertinent is:
‘We must hang together, gentleman, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’
For me at least, this is what the Occupy Movement has been and is still about. In an age where corporations have been awarded the distinction of personhood, when free speech is equated to money and The Rule of Law is applied in an unjust and inequitable fashion then we, ordinary citizens, have a duty to support and join one another in protest. To hang together, if you will.
Oh, and that Tea Party, the real one in Boston that got everything rolling?
We all recall the ‘taxation without representation’ line from our school years, stemming from the passage of the Stamp Act in the 1760s and later the Tea Act in 1773. King George had debts to pay off—a Seven Year’s War among other things. And the East India Company’s tea pitched into the Boston Harbor? East India was basically provided a monopoly on tea shipped into the colonies. The company [and its aristocratic shareholders] were none too happy about their profits pinched and drowned in the harbor and helped push [lobby] the King to pass the Coercive Acts, aka The Intolerable Acts. The colonists were generally peeved at the British Parliament for taxing them without their consent and then adding insult to injury, giving the East India Co. a cushy, duty-free export to undercut colonial merchants. But they were beyond peeved when punitive measures were leveled. They demanded that Parliament end its corrupt economic policies with and stop the bailout of that era’s own TBTF East India Company.
Sound vaguely familiar? Whatever’s old is new again. Of course, no one age can be accurately compared to another. Context is everything. To quote Barbara Kingsolver from the November issue of The Occupy Wall Street Journal:
“Every system on earth has its limits. We have never been here before, not right here exactly, you and me together in the golden and gritty places all at once, on deadline, no fooling around this time, no longer walking politely around the dire colossus, the so-called American Way of consecrated corporate profits and crushed public compassion. There is another American Way. This is the right place, we found it. On State of Franklin, we yelled until our throats hurt that we were the 99% because that’s just it. We are.”
As I’ve said elsewhere, I support Occupy until I don’t. The ‘don’t’ for me is if the Movement becomes another co-opted arm of one corrupt political party or another. Our existing two-party system is thoroughly compromised; a shipload of bleach and scrub brushes couldn’t clean it up. I support Occupy because I hate the idea of leaving my kids and future grandbabies with a broken, twisted Republic, one dedicated to piranha-school profits, the amassing of criminal wealth by a callous, irresponsible few at the expense of the many. I support the Occupiers because of those sweet-faced kids on the Santa train; they deserve the best we have. But I also support what I saw on Dilworth Plaza because of what I saw and recalled inside Independence Hall, what we owe to all those who sacrificed and struggled, dreamed and achieved, lived, loved and died over the last 200+ years. We stand on the shoulders of so many.
That’s something we should never forget because our past, our history is no small thing. But our future, that other American Way? That’s all about what we do now.