Occupy Philly votes to stay at Dilworth Plaza

Posted: November 12, 2011

Occupy Philadelphia girded for a confrontation with authorities late Friday as participants voted to remain at Dilworth Plaza, despite the city's insistence that they leave.

The group, which numbered around 200 early in the five-hour-plus gathering, also voted to implement nonviolent resistance training in preparation for an eviction. City officials have demanded that the encampment - scores of tents pitched at Dilworth for more than a month - vacate so that a $50 million construction project can begin this month or next.

After the vote, Occupy participants shouted: "Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!"

The group had initially put forth two proposals during what members called a general assembly. The first proposal was to remain at Dilworth and expand to Thomas Paine Plaza across the street. If that proposal had failed, the group had planned to vote on a second proposal: to leave Dilworth and move to Paine.

As the night wore on, the group offered amendments to scratch the idea of expanding to Paine and added the nonviolence training.

Earlier Friday, Philadelphia Managing Director Richard Negrin said he was disappointed that the protesters had framed the issue as an expansion and not as a move. He said city officials would continue working with the group in hopes of avoiding confrontations.

In recent weeks, Negrin said, he has grown concerned that the group has communicated less. "We're trying to avoid showdowns," he said. "We think there is an element of Occupy that wants a showdown, and we don't want to give that to them."

Negrin said the city was willing to discuss a move to Thomas Paine or any other location that would suit both the city's and the occupiers' needs, but the city would not issue permits for two sites.

"This has already cost us more than a half-million dollars. Multiple locations means more police and more of a disruption to the general public," he said.

In Philadelphia, the movement has been largely peaceful so far, a sharp contrast to Oakland, Calif., where a protester was critically injured, and Baltimore, where police have clashed with demonstrators.

On Friday, in a spirited call and response, members asked questions and voiced concerns, and the crowd repeated their words at top volume, mimicking a megaphone effect.

There was an early declaration that if they were to stay at Dilworth, they must do so nonviolently, and a concern that occupying two sites could divide the group. One speaker said: "We are stronger together than we are apart."

"There are hard-core occupiers that will stay regardless of what the [general assembly] decides," said Christina Finger, 26, of Philadelphia, who favored staying at Dilworth and expanding to Thomas Paine.

As the assembly, which began around 7 p.m., stretched toward its fifth hour, members were no longer airing concerns about the stay-and-expand plan but had, in a classic illustration of participatory democracy, moved on to amendments to that plan.

By the time of the vote, a little after 11 p.m., many exasperated Occupiers had given up and headed home.

"Direct democracy by nature is frustrating and slow," said Deborah Luepnitz, 59, of Philadelphia. "There is a time and place for civil disobedience and inviting arrest. This is not it. Our enemy is corporate greed - not Mayor Nutter."

The Occupy movement, which started with protests on Wall Street, has gained supporters worldwide. In Philadelphia and other cities, protesters have decried corporate influence over politics, social inequality, the nation's bleak employment conditions, and many other issues.

Some protesters have said taxpayer dollars could be better spent to house and feed people instead of on the Dilworth project. But city officials say that the plaza has been decaying for years and that the construction project would employ hundreds of people over two years.

The project would turn the plaza's concrete surfaces into green public space and provide greater handicapped access. Plans include remaking SEPTA concourses, a cafe that would remain lighted at night, a large and concert-friendly lawn partially covered by trees, and a programmable fountain that could double as a skating rink and that pedestrians could walk across when it was not in use.

Mostly federal and state grants, restricted for capital improvements, are paying for the project.

Contact staff writer Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com,

or @darransimon on Twitter.

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