Occupy Philadelphia starts slowly, builds to about 700 protesters

On Dilworth Plaza are Eleanor Walker (left) and Olivia Ballard. The presence of older protesters showed that the movement has wider support and deeper roots than just frustrated, angry college grads.
On Dilworth Plaza are Eleanor Walker (left) and Olivia Ballard. The presence of older protesters showed that the movement has wider support and deeper roots than just frustrated, angry college grads. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2011

Before Thursday's launch of the Occupy Philadelphia protest at City Hall, Marty and Linda Collins, of Blackwood, a married couple in their 60s, had never been to a political demonstration.

"This is the first time we've done anything like this," said Marty Collins, 65, a former manager at a bar/restaurant in New Jersey. "It's reached a point where I'm really worried for the first time."

Retirees like the Collinses, and others old enough to be retired, made a strong showing on the first day of what organizers hope will be a protracted demonstration that will force change in what they see as Washington's political and economic favoritism toward big corporations and the richest Americans.

The presence of older protesters showed that the movement that started last month in New York as Occupy Wall Street has wider support and deeper roots than the frustrated and angry recent college graduates in their 20s who have failed to get a financial toehold in life because of the stalled U.S. job market.

Occupy Wall Street has spawned the same kind of protests in a number of other cities, including one in Trenton, where 50 or so protesters set up camp Thursday afternoon at a World War II memorial across from the state Capitol.

"This is democracy in action," said protester Tim O'Neall, of Collingswood, who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran and frequent protester. "This will grow. This is only the beginning."

The assembly on Dilworth Plaza built slowly, disappointing some of the participants, but that is what organizers had expected. By 10:30 a.m., several hundred demonstrators had gathered, and a jam session erupted among several musicians with guitars, a trumpet, and drums.

Protesters arrived with signs such as "HUMAN NEED NOT CORPORATE GREED," carried by Calvin Morrison, 20, of Willow Grove, a Temple University student studying education.

In keeping with the focus on the rich, another sign read: "Where is Robin Hood when you need him?"

In the course of the morning, infrastructure - the kind meant to sustain the protest - started falling into place. After an organizer hopped up on a stone wall and called out that tables were needed for first aid and other stations, a rabbi from a nearby temple offered four tables, as did a community group called Fight for Philly.

District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees donated office space for Occupy Philadelphia's legal team.

Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor unions and student, community, and religious groups, agreed to allow financial donations for the protest to be funneled through it, to ensure compliance with tax laws.

The stagehands union said it would have a professional sound system in place for Friday, eliminating the need for the "people's mike" - a system of echoing by the crowd, so all could hear.

A group moved to the side about 11:30 for a session of Tai Chi, a slow-moving Chinese form of martial arts popular as low-key exercise.

By noon, at the start of the General Assembly - the name organizers use for meetings at which group decisions are made - a member of the Philadelphia Police Department's Civil Affairs Division, who was standing at the center of the crowd, estimated that 700 had gathered.

At the meeting, the officer offered a slight smile during a round of applause for police.

A march in the streets around City Hall stopped traffic in the late afternoon. The archways into the courtyard were closed all day. In the early evening, about 20 police officers on bicycles were poised for deployment on the south side of City Hall.

Even skeptics stopped by early to check out the scene.

Two SEPTA workers, who were on their way to a job and would not give their names because they were not supposed to be at the protest, must have been free-market types. They did not like the idea of government fixing things. "Government is way too large on all levels - city, state, and federal," one of them said.

A semiretired banker from Penn Valley was disappointed. "It lacks the passion I expect," said Alex Vinskie, 67.

He also thought the demonstration would have attracted a better cross-representation of society, with more minorities. "In a city with the minority population, the poverty, and the unemployment" of Philadelphia, he said, "I expected those people to be out." He could support that, he said.

Daniel Watson, 25, an Englishman who has lived in the United States for four years, and in Philadelphia for two, offered a younger, and European, perspective.

"I love living in America, but I find it disappointing that there's no impetus on real social-care programs ... health care, monetary care. People are not well-represented at all in government," said Watson, who works as a software engineer and took off a half-day "because I wanted to be one extra person."

Kevin Mitchell, 54, an accountant who looked as if he might have been outside for a smoking break, said that he was there as a supporter but that he had no plans to camp out, as some said they would do.

He said he was tired of companies bullying employees.

"I hate to use the analogy, but I really feel like I'm in an abusive relationship. I can't get out and go anywhere," Mitchell said. "This is going to help me let off a little steam."

Some retirees were there for their families.

"I have children and grandchildren, and I don't want them to grow up in this world," said Deborah Zuchman, 64, who was a Philadelphia public school teacher for 35 years. "I want the world to change. It can be done."

Another retired teacher, Daisy Vance, 71, who lives in North Philadelphia, said she was fed up with politics.

Her message to politicians: "If you don't get together and sit and think about the people rather than your party - the Democratic Party, the Republican Party - nothing is going to work. I think they need to work together to think about the people. That's what it's about. It's about the people."


See video

of the Occupy Philadelphia protest at www.philly.com/occupy

 


Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651

or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Peter Mucha, Allison Steele,

and Bob Warner contributed

to this article.

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