Occupy Phila.: The who, the why

Oct. 8: A quote from Margaret Mead, about making a difference, on a sign outside Independence Hall sums up the hopes that are driving the Occupy Philadelphia rally. The marchers covered eight blocks from City Hall to the historic area.
Oct. 8: A quote from Margaret Mead, about making a difference, on a sign outside Independence Hall sums up the hopes that are driving the Occupy Philadelphia rally. The marchers covered eight blocks from City Hall to the historic area. (ALEX BRANDON / Associated Press)
Posted: October 09, 2011

Impressions from spending the first 24 hours with the protesters of Occupy Philadelphia.

About 60 worn-out protesters were curled up in sleeping bags at 2 o'clock Friday morning, and others were in tents shielded from the chilly air, as Day 1 of Occupy Philadelphia continued on the hard marble of Dilworth Plaza.

The excitement of a noontime rally by about 700 occupiers and a march around City Hall was followed by a mellow night of music and mingling in small groups, punctuated only by a 1:15 a.m. visit from Mayor Nutter.

Not even the protesters know how long they'll stay, sharing their deliberately diverse complaints on economic injustice, corporate greed, bank bailouts, joblessness, and the evils of the Federal Reserve.

Like the protesters at New York's Occupy Wall Street, where many Philadelphians warmed up for Thursday's launch of Occupy Philadelphia, they see themselves as an idealistic vanguard taking to the streets with a fervor for change not seen for decades in this country.

What to make of these people?

Who started this?

New York City was the scene of the first rally, known as Occupy Wall Street, on Sept. 17. The name comes from a July 13 blog by the editor of Adbusters, a liberal Canadian magazine, that put out a call for protests against Wall Street.

A Philadelphia protester who spent time at Occupy Wall Street and wears a bandanna to foil facial-recognition software said New York had grown more intense because of clashes with police.

Another said the first night on Dilworth Plaza should not be taken as a measure of the future of the community. Joshua Hupp, a Community College of Philadelphia student, said he ate better at Occupy Wall Street than he does in his West Philadelphia studio.

Who shows up?

The mix tilts toward men and women in their 20s who have the freedom to make an extended protest, especially in the overnight crew.

When urged during a "direct action" meeting Thursday night to write the telephone number of the National Lawyers Guild on their bodies, a few had a hard time finding room for it on their arms amid the tattoos.

The late-nighters included Matt Deifer, 30, who lives in Powelton Village and owns a talent agency. He went home soon after Nutter did, because he had to work early Friday.

Retirees made a strong showing at Thursday's daytime rally, as did college students. It is not uncommon to find people in their 60s and 70s who say they are participating in their first political protest.

The un-tea party?

It is not lost on protesters that the Occupy movement has common ground with the tea party. Both movements are sharply critical of the Federal Reserve and Washington.

"I'm angry and I'm not ready to join the tea party," said David Taylor, of Berwyn, who resented a Fox News description of the protesters as leftover hippies. "I was never a hippie or anything like that," said Taylor, 65, a businessman and teacher.

What motivates them?

Alan Ford, 39, who said he had a heating and air-conditioning business go belly-up last week, said Occupy Philadelphia was his first protest. What put him over the edge was the $5 monthly ATM fee instituted by Bank of America - after it was bailed out by taxpayers.

The movement's lack of a single focus is what attracted Ford, who was playing chess at 12:30 in the morning, to join.

The pure "righteousness" of the movement pulled in Bill Murphy, 36, who said he worked in the mortgage industry before joining a nonprofit.

Yael Ossowski, a 22-year-old political science grad student at Penn, was debating the Federal Reserve with Murphy as midnight approached. Ossowski said he liked to be part of a "breathing democracy."

Meetings and meetings

One thing the Occupy protesters have in common with the corporate America they despise is the penchant for meetings, agendas, and crafting of mission statements.

"To affect change by raising awareness" was the first stab at a mission statement during a direct-action group meeting at 10 Thursday night.

Yet, there is no rush to make decisions. At Thursday's two General Assembly meetings - held up as "the way democracy works" - no decision was made on whether to apply for city permits.

Who is in charge?

No one will admit to being in charge. But like a Quaker meeting, some are moved to run meetings and check off agenda items.

There is a list of 15 or so "bottomliners," people who have agreed to make sure the goals of committees are met.

The Nutter visit

At a planning meeting, some occupiers derided the notion that the city and its police would be "welcoming." But Nutter was greeted like a rock star during his visit at 1:15 in the morning. There were 200 or so protesters there at that hour, though many were asleep.

There was banter about the mayor's dotted salmon-colored tie. "Will you wear an Occupy Philly tie, if I make you one?" a young woman asked.

Other exchanges were serious. A young man talked of disturbing experiences in Philadelphia schools as a City Year volunteer. Getting in Nutter's face, the protester urged: "Just do something."

"I'm trying," Nutter said.

"Don't try. Just do!" the man shot back.

After the mayor departed and most went to sleep, there was no quiet. The city and the systems in its towering buildings roar at night.

Day 2 dawns

Marc Train, 24, a chef who works two jobs, bright-eyed from a night's sleep at home, was at the food table at 7:30 Friday morning, standing behind stacks of sliced bread.

Later Friday, he said, he would cook donated potatoes in the kitchen of the Friends Center at 15th and Cherry Streets. What would go with them, he wasn't sure. "It all depends on what we have," he said.

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

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