"Occupy Wall Street" protest movement seeks a Philadelphia foothold

James Hilton listens during the meeting at the United Methodist Church of the Philadelphia version of Occupy Wall Street.
James Hilton listens during the meeting at the United Methodist Church of the Philadelphia version of Occupy Wall Street. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 02, 2011

Ahuviya Harel wore a Soviet flag Thursday to the first Occupy Philadelphia planning meeting, one of many efforts nationwide aiming to echo New York's two-week-old Occupy Wall Street protest against the "greed and corruption" of the richest 1 percent of Americans.

Communism is "my ultimate goal, in many years, for this country," Harel said, glancing down at the flag, because "the rich keep getting richer, and everybody else is just struggling to get by or getting poorer."

Later, after the meeting of about 200 in the soaring, ornate sanctuary of the Arch Street United Methodist Church, Shawn McMonigle, who overheard Harel's comment, urged:

"Don't skew us with that communist dude."

McMonigle and the young men he was standing with outside the church said they were not sure how they would change the economic and political systems, though they agree that socialism and communism had been tried in other countries and were not the answer.

McMonigle, an unemployed Fishtown resident, expressed common ground for his group, which comprised a paralegal student stressed about the debt he is taking on to get a degree and a job, a business consultant who said he had seen firsthand the traps financial companies set for the poor, and a retail manager.

"Whatever is happening in the world is not working for the majority of people," McMonigle said.

In that, the would-be occupiers of Philadelphia, mostly in their 20s, sounded much like many 60-something businessmen who are terrified of the future and convinced that the "dysfunction of our political system," in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, has stacked the economy against them.

The Philadelphia group aims to capture the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, which was inspired by Adbusters, a Canadian activist magazine hoping to spark street demonstrations of the kind that toppled Arab regimes in the spring. Protesters began occupying a park near Wall Street in Manhattan's Financial District on Sept. 17.

Dozens of such groups have since formed across the United States, spurred by anger at the power of giant corporations, frustration at joblessness, and exasperation with politicians who refuse to increase taxes on the richest 1 percent of Americans while slashing programs for the poor.

Income growth for the top 1 percent - 762,310 families with annual household incomes of at least $368,238 in 2008 - grew 3.94 percent annually from 1993 through 2008, adjusted for inflation, according to research by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley.

For the bottom 99 percent - more than 150 million families - real incomes grew just 0.75 percent annually during that period, Saez wrote.

That discrepancy is a key motivator for Amanda Geraci, an experienced community organizer who helped keep Thursday's planning session running smoothly. Her goals for the Occupy movement are "holding the top 1 percent accountable" and building something that can replace the country's "faux democratic process."

There was an ambitious agenda for the two-hour meeting, which started after a procession from Wooden Shoe Books & Records, run by a volunteer group of self-declared anarchists and radicals, in the 700 block of South Street, to the church at Broad and Arch Streets.

After a briefing by lawyers specializing in free speech and rights of protesters, the meeting moved to picking a place to occupy, setting a date for the occupation to start, and forming committees to handle security, outreach, cleanliness, food, and other areas.

Deciding where to go in New York to protest wealth concentration is a no-brainer: Wall Street.

In Philadelphia, that decision is not so clear.

The long list of possibilities tossed out included Rittenhouse Square, Independence Mall, LOVE Park, the stock exchange, and City Hall.

No choice was made, and no date was set, as the democratic ethos of the meeting allowed everyone who wanted to speak to have his or her say. Plenty took advantage of that, if only to say they wanted to talk about what the group would stand for. Another meeting was scheduled for Tuesday at the church.

Frustrated by the assembly's lack of progress, a man identified as Nikolas Diener on Facebook jumped onto a pew during a short break and shouted that he would start a protest himself Monday morning on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 21st and 22d Streets.

Some of the Occupy Philadelphia planners, including Rachel Pletz, a nanny who lives in West Philadelphia, have been to the protest in New York.

"This is about solidarity. This is about getting people together and figuring it out. We just know something's wrong," she said.


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Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

 

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