Occupy Philadelphia protesting in peace

Posted: October 27, 2011

Joshua Farrell, 59, a retired social worker who spends his days in Occupy Philadelphia's encampment outside City Hall, has a nasty black eye.

Years ago, under Mayor Frank Rizzo's billy-club-in-the-cummerbund rule, say, it would have been reasonable to assume the shiner was a gift from the city's then brutal police.

But times have changed, radically.

Occupy Philadelphia, entering its 23d day on Dilworth Plaza, remains one of the most peaceful demonstrations of its kind in the country.

In contrast to Oakland, Calif., where a protester was critically injured, and Baltimore, where police clashed with demonstrators this week, Philadelphia has been a model of restraint.

Police, city officials, and the movement's members are praising one another for their civility and respect.

"The city government is sympathetic," says Joshua Hupp, an Occupy activist. "They haven't tried to get rid of us like in other cities. That's saying something."

Farrell, who is working with the growing population of homeless people who are gravitating to the movement's tent city, says the police have been nothing but helpful. "Their presence alone is deterring some people from acting out."

He got his black eye when he was shoved into a tent pole a few days ago by a disturbed man.

"He was off his meds and having a paranoid episode," Farrell explains. After calming the man, Farrell gave him bus fare and directed him to a mental-health center. The man returned that afternoon with a doctor's prescription and is doing much better now.

As relatively well-behaved as the protesters have been, as the movement moves into its fourth week, it has been criticized for its cost to the city, lack of philosophical focus, and for creating an eyesore.

Police patrol the plaza day and night. Most are officers from Center City precincts assigned during their regular hours, but so far, overtime has cost the city about $500,000.

Amid the 200 tents pitched around City Hall are signs advocating a flurry of causes: "Corporate Owned Media = Corporate Lies," "Capitalism is failing, socialism is the alternative," "Stop Foreclosures," "No Fracking," and "Ron Paul for President."

The activists are planning a "march to end the silence" on Saturday to coincide with a visit to the city by former President Bill Clinton. The march will start at 12:30 at City Hall and head to Temple University. Participants will cover their mouths with bandannas printed with the names of corporations that organizers say exert too much influence on politicians.

To ask what the movement's main issues are is "a loaded question," says Chris Goldstein, a volunteer for Occupy's public-relations working group. A general assembly meets daily to reach consensus on all aspects of the demonstration. "The direction is being defined. No one wants to presuppose what that will be, but it's mainly the issue of bringing awareness about corporate greed and economic inequality."

Thursday morning, half a dozen activists announced via the call-and-response "people's microphone" that they were going to a City Council hearing on the curfew for teens.

Few were listening.

Most people stayed zipped into their soggy tents.

"Occupy Philly has evolved," says Goldstein, 35, a writer and legal-marijuana activist. "We have created a community. . . . It's sort of like people on a concrete island where no one gets voted off."

From the start, participants were loath to displace any homeless people who consider City Hall home.

"So we provide them the same services we give everyone else - tents, tarps, clothing, and three meals a day," says Joe Kalil, 51, an unemployed stone cutter. "We are committed to a better, different world so we have no choice but to share what we have."

Volunteers prepare and distribute about 1,500 meals a day, using the kitchen at the nearby American Friends Service Committee.

"At first it was loosey-goosey," says Patricia McBee, executive director of the Friends Center. "But they've really pulled themselves together. There are knowledgeable cooks on every shift. It goes from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. when we close. They're in there, preparing, chopping, preparing the donations - it's pretty impressive."

The center had allowed the protesters access to the building's shower, but it broke from overuse this week.

Most of those using the facility were homeless.

The encampment's provision of shelter and food has drawn many to stay in the plaza, even though they have no connection to the protest.

Several activists say this only demonstrates the need for more social services for this population.

"We wish Occupy wasn't the only one providing 24/7 food," Goldstein says.

Contrary to public perception that the movement represents a group of lazy malcontents, Goldstein says many of his fellow activists are educated, employed, and hardworking, continuing to support themselves and their families while they volunteer.

People such as Hupp, 26, a security officer who finished a year of social service with City Year and is a student at Community College of Philadelphia, working toward a degree in environmental science. And Alan Sable, who has a B.A. in economics from Wesleyan University, owns a home in South Philadelphia and works as a union organizer.

The movement's representatives have maintained a good working relationship with the city administration so far, says Managing Director Richard Negrin.

Letters have been exchanged about sanitation and public safety concerns, Negrin says, and Thursday, the activists agreed to establish regular meetings with city officials. "There are people in the encampment with medical conditions, people who are vulnerable and right now we don't have enough access," Negrin says.

Both the city and the Occupy activists anticipate challenges in their relationship over the next few weeks and months. The nylon tents will have to be replaced with sturdier structures during the winter weather, and eventually, the entire encampment will have to move to allow for a major construction project that will provide trees and greater handicapped access to Dilworth Plaza.

"Communication is the key here," says Lt. Ray Evers, spokesman for the Philadelphia police. "Commissioner [Charles H.] Ramsey stops by every day before he comes into the office and on the way home to check in. He has been very careful in reference to their right to free speech."

City officials hope enough goodwill and mutual understanding have been established so that the peaceful coexistence can continue.

"But when the time comes for them to move," Evers says, "they move."


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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