Crime, radicals, homeless (& poop) tarnish Occupy message

Posted: November 16, 2011

THE PAST 38 DAYS have taught Occupy Philly a bitter lesson: It's pretty damn hard to create a utopia on the unforgiving concrete of the City of Brotherly Love.

It started as an almost spontaneous social movement that, in seeking to throw a spotlight on corporate greed and inequality in America, gathered 1,000-strong in a Center City church and threw open its arms to anyone from the so-called 99 Percent.

But it turns out that 99 percent of America includes a hard-core faction of as many as 10-20 anarchists who've feuded with Occupy Philly's more moderate originators, as well as the city's large homeless population, which began to dominate the tent city at Dilworth Plaza as cold weather sent better-off protesters home.

The positive political message of the Occupy movement was increasingly drowned out by a drumbeat of negative headlines, including an alleged rape over the weekend and increasingly unsanitary conditions. Police yesterday made two more arrests and said someone painted the concourse walls below the plaza with feces and graffiti.

Not long after a homeless man was punched in the face at Occupy Philly yesterday afternoon, a group of people confronted another homeless man sitting along the north end of City Hall. He had been accused of being a "sexual predator" who often "bumps and grinds" up against women, said the woman who confronted him, loudly.

Police spoke with the man for several minutes. Then he went and got free ice cream. "Why can't we all just eat ice cream and get along?" a man in camouflage yelled in the middle of it all.

Last night, with Occupy Philly clearly teetering on the brink, there was suddenly hope that the Nutter administration and a so-called sensible group of longtime occupiers could reach an agreement on a new location.

Such a plan would allow for the start of a $50 million project to remake Dilworth Plaza on the west apron of City Hall - but it could also still lead to an eventual confrontation between police and a "radical" caucus who seem determined to stay at Dilworth no matter what.

City Managing Director Richard Negrin said his office had a breakthrough during a meeting yesterday with about 25 members of Occupy Philly's "Reasonable Solutions People."

"They expressed a willingness to work together and to relocate," Negrin said. "They agreed to weekly meetings and having an ongoing dialogue. It was very positive."

The Occupy members told city officials that the majority of protesters felt it was time to reach out to the city and find workable solutions. "They said they had approximately 500 signatures," Negrin said.

City officials gave the occupiers a blank permit for a possible new location for their protests. "We didn't dictate any terms," Negrin said. "We asked them to bring us a proposal."

Over the course of 5 1/2 weeks, the current Dilworth site has become a magnet for the homeless, and last week there appeared to be a tipping point as chillier weather and deteriorating conditions drove away some of the original protesters.

"The whole area down there is nasty," said Police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, who is in charge of the cops assigned to the Occupy Philly detail.

Sullivan said he was disappointed with the changes in tone and behavior that he's seen firsthand with the movement during the past month.

"It started off well. They were very cooperative, and we cooperated with them, escorting them on marches and stopping traffic for them," he said.

"Now we're hearing, 'F--- you, pigs!' and 'Death to pigs!' If there was a triggering incident, it would be easier to understand. But nothing's happened."

Sullivan said a 45-year-old homeless woman who was staying at the campsite told police she was punched and slapped by a 47-year-old man shortly before 1 a.m. yesterday. Cops arrested the man, who was also homeless, several hours later.

But bad behavior by some of the homeless lured by free food, a warming tent and other amenities hasn't been the only problem ripping apart the encampment.

Longtime activists also blame a radical element, which they tied to one longtime participant, Cindy Milstein, a nationally known anarchist writer who moved to Philadelphia right before the occupation started.

Members of the "sensible" faction say that Milstein is linked to a group of roughly 10 to 20 anarchists in Occupy Philly and that their numbers were swelled by outsiders, possibly bused in, on Friday night, when an assembly voted to defy the city and remain at Dilworth.

Milstein denied that she was a negative influence on the Occupy movement or that anarchists had been bused in. She instead blamed the dissension at Dilworth on three or so leaders of the "sensible" faction determined to keep control of the movement.

"For a small group of people, it's hard for them to listen and to change," Milstein said. "It's scary for a lot of us."

Sean Kitchen, 22, a Kutztown University student who founded the Occupy Philadelphia Facebook page and who is with the "sensible" group, blamed the radical faction for making violent threats against other occupiers.

Meanwhile, mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said that widely reported eviction rumors were just that - rumors. "There is no action coming [Wednesday] or overnight," he said.

The rumors spread on the same day that officials in New York cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zucotti Park, arresting 200, in a predawn raid. A state judge later ruled that New York was allowed to ban protesters from bringing camping gear into the park.

Back in Philly, a small number of people have been occupying the free-speech area of Independence Mall. They've even pitched a tent, though they're not allowed to sleep in it.

"It's a beautiful mall, man," said Colleen Begley, a marijuana activist from Moorestown who has been there for several days.

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