Occupy Philly counselor discusses nonviolent tactics

Occupy Philly on Sunday. Philadelphia lawyer Larry Krasner counseled local organizers.
Occupy Philly on Sunday. Philadelphia lawyer Larry Krasner counseled local organizers. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 29, 2011

Born in St. Louis, raised in Tredyffrin, educated at the University of Chicago and Stanford University Law School, Philadelphia lawyer Larry Krasner, 50, is a longtime advocate for free-speech movements.

The son of a Jewish father who wrote murder mysteries and a mother who was a Methodist minister, Krasner has respect for underdogs and the civil-disobedience traditions of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Working pro bono and "low-bono," as he calls it, he has represented, directly and indirectly, about 1,000 activists of every stripe.

After posts as a local and a federal public defender, he cut his teeth defending ACT UP, the AIDS-policy protesters of the 1980s; gained prominence with the team that represented 400 arrested demonstrators at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia; and recently counseled Occupy Philadelphia organizers on the different liabilities of establishing their camp on city, state, or federal land.

He is the attorney for a dozen Occupiers arrested recently after an act of "street theater" in which they "foreclosed" on a Center City branch of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage for "economic injustice." Demonstrators said the lending giant's tellers make about $10 an hour, the CEO about $10,000.

After police raids to disperse Occupy camps in New York and California, and with Occupy Philadelphia having been told to abandon its effort to maintain a tent city near City Hall, Krasner, in this edited conversation with staff writer Michael Matza, reflected on Occupy's challenges and its place in the fight for social justice.

Question: Is the exercise of free speech necessarily confrontational?

Krasner: That's exactly what Gandhi is talking about when he says you have to be nonviolent, but you have to get the oppressor to bare its claws. ... Occupy is not saying that the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia police are the oppressors. They are saying the oppressor is unbridled wealth, the oppressor is greed in money and politics. 

Q: What about Oakland and Berkeley in California, where police and Occupiers have clashed?

Krasner: Activists don't in fact ... have the power to overcome the state, or great wealth. When they simply use their idealism and their nonviolence and they are met with unjust force, that is how social change has been successful historically, [by] winning over popular opinion.

Q: Is Occupy Philadelphia succeeding with its message about economic injustice?

Krasner: Don't underestimate the extent to which what Occupy Philadelphia is doing, however imperfectly, resonates with a wider public. I am hearing stories about people who speak out at an Occupy general assembly meeting [featured in the media], and so their faces get recognized. They get on the bus the next day, and the bus driver won't take the money. They go into a delicatessen, and the guy behind the counter won't charge them for coffee. ... What the "1 percent" should not underestimate is the huge number of people who are silently supportive of what they figured out over the last 30 years are unfair conditions.

Q: What did you tell Occupy Philadelphia before it established its camp?

Krasner: Philadelphia is 80 percent Democratic, with a large minority population. ... Federal jurors, on the other hand, are from far-flung areas [and tend to be more conservative]. In Philadelphia, you are better off remaining within a [city] jurisdiction where you could end up with a Philadelphia jury and judge.

Q: The city wants to begin construction on a $50 million improvement project. How do you rate its communication with the protesters regarding the effort to move them from City Hall's Dilworth Plaza to Thomas Paine Plaza across the street? On Paine Plaza, a permit is required, and they would be stripped of their tents. Some Occupiers had started to move two weeks ago when the city stopped them. Then the city said again they had to move.

Krasner: Having said, "Come on, come on, why won't you come on?" ... the city [suddenly] said, "No." I think what has happened since then is that everybody is trying to figure out whether the city is sincere or not. Most free speech activity occurs without any permit. ... But cities have always sought permits. It's an awful nice way for people in power to monitor what others who are not in power are doing and how they plan to do it.

Q: A rape was reported inside the Occupy Philadelphia camp. What about that, and other incidents?

Krasner: There has been isolated stuff. There is isolated stuff on any block. There is a person with mental health issues who is not an Occupier and in fact doesn't like the Occupiers because he is used to that area being his alone. He threw a can of paint ... broke a couple of windows. But it was not an activity of Occupy Philadelphia. The challenge for Occupy is to stay strictly nonviolent. The challenge for the city is to not let politics and money intrude too much.


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541

or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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