Without a physical camp, Occupy Temple has maintained its presence on Main Campus.
Occupy Philadelphia once again setup a physical camp in the city this past weekend, this time in Independence Mall. The re-debut of a temporarily claimed territory highlighted the longevity of the Occupy movement, a series of actions that calls out issues of wealth disparity and educational inequalities, among others.
“Friday marked our six-month anniversary, celebrating the progress we’ve made as a whole over the past six months, including the four months in which we did not physically occupy a space,” junior film major Steph Irwin said. “It was great to see comrades and familiar faces at the reoccupation, but to be honest, I haven’t stopped interacting with them since the physical eviction in November.”
As Irwin notes, many physical sites of the movement were dismantled in recent months. The city’s first encampment was evicted in late November 2011, yet individual spinoff groups like Occupy Temple maintain a stronghold on the campaigns they’ve started.
The movement first started when activists gathered in September in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to begin building a camp and a movement that would spread internationally. Directly adjacent to Wall Street, the activists were there to protest what they viewed as unjust economic practices in the government and in the private corporate sector. Creating systems that would sustain their inhabitation of the park, the activists planned to be there indefinitely. The name of their movement, Occupy Wall Street, quickly became a 2011 buzz term.
As the occupation in the park grew, tension built between protesters and New York City police.
On Oct. 1, 2011, approximately 800 people were arrested during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. Several Temple law students were present for the incident, some of them serving as legal observers for the National Lawyer’s Guild.
Strategic and Organizational Communication professor Jason Del Gandio, Ph.D., said this event was crucial for the Occupy movement to spread.
“The first couple of weeks, as we all know, [the movement] was pretty small,” Del Gandio said. “It didn’t really have much of an impact and then there were mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and that’s when the whole thing took off and got national media attention and from that point forward it really took on a life of its own.”
Activists in Philadelphia quickly planned their own occupation, and on Oct. 6, 2011, convened in the plaza at City Hall and began to erect tents and tables. Del Gandio, who wrote several essays and spoke on national television about the Occupy movement, began volunteering with the media team forming at the Philadelphia occupation.
“I would straddle the line between organizer and public intellectual,” Del Gandio said. “I was extremely impressed and extremely excited about what was occurring. It really felt like a moment was occurring and I just wanted to be part of that moment.”
Last week, the Sociological Organization of Undergraduate Leadership organized an interdisciplinary panel discussion on the Occupy movement. Panel members included professors from a variety of schools and disciplines, including economics, journalism, political science, business and African-American studies.
“It was probably the most interesting panel I’ve ever been to, but that was mostly because the audience and panel yelled at each other,” senior sociology major Beth Cozzolino said. “One of the things that we talked about was whether or not we were going to vote for [President Barack] Obama in 2012 and whether or not we needed to. That was something that people were really passionate about.”
Del Gandio was not the only member of the Temple community who took an interest in Occupy Wall Street. Many Temple students took the subway down to City Hall to see the occupation and learn more about the movement.
Freshman secondary education major Walter Smolarek was one such student who decided to get involved. He noted that in the early days of Occupy Philadelphia, activists hoped to work alongside the city to achieve change.
“In the first few weeks of Occupy, there were a lot of people who thought that the police could be won over to the side of the movement or that Mayor [Michael] Nutter was our ally,” Smolarek said. “As the brutal police repression of Occupy demonstrations across the country continued and as Nutter quickly changed his tune when the coordinated evictions of Occupy camps started, people began to better understand the roles that these institutions play in society.”
By Nov. 30, 2011, the Philadelphia occupation was dismantled by police.
“For the most part the encampments have all been evicted, which was a development I welcomed,” senior political science major Ethan Jury said. “While the encampments themselves were important on a symbolic and experiential level of bringing a number of different people together within a collective statement, I think that, to a certain extent, they were a misdirection of energy. In a lot of post-encampment cities now you see a lot of functional working groups having grown out from that, doing more important, actual progressive work like foreclosure resistance, anti-police brutality organizing, reclaiming vacant lots and providing free education.”
One such working group was established on campus last semester was Jury’s, Occupy Temple.
The Main Campus-based group continues to arrange and participate in various actions relating to what they describe as issues plaguing society. Students meet once a week to discuss political, social, educational and economic issues.
Del Gandio said this type of work, while not as visible as the physical occupation of City Hall, is crucial to the movement.
“The large majority of work that goes into every social movement goes unseen and unnoticed. So for instance, one of the reasons that Occupy was this big phenomenon was because there was a public presence in all these cities around the country,” Del Gandio said. “Obviously [Occupy’s] peak was in late fall, early winter, right before all the encampments were broken up across the country. Now it’s more organizing and strategizing in terms of what to do in the future. But the future is actually upon us now. In April, here in Philadelphia, there are actions planned every week, sometimes multiple actions per week.”
Del Gandio said that the actions are all leading up to May 1, which is International Workers Day. He said that this is a national day of action for the Occupy movement.
Critics of Occupy saw the end of the physical occupation as the end of the movement and have said that the protesters made no impact on the current economic system.
Smolarek believes that the movement has already served an important purpose.
“The most important achievement of the Occupy movement is that it opened up new political space for people to organize and fight back against economic and social injustice,” Smolarek said. “Before Occupy, there was no mass people’s response to the capitalist economic crisis. Now the momentum is with ordinary people who want to resist the attacks that are being carried out every day by Wall Street bankers and CEOs, whether it’s foreclosures, budget cuts, unemployment, et cetera.”
Without the encampment, Philadelphia activists are challenged to re-imagine the structure and direction of the movement.
“I think the biggest challenge going forward is developing more disciplined and effective organization,” Smolarek said. “There’s a tremendous amount of support for the Occupy movement, and we need to develop structures, strategies and tactics that encourage supporters to become active participants.”
Students involved with Occupy Temple said they are committed to continuing the work that was started back in September in New York City.
“I plan to be present at all actions that I can and to engage in dialogue about the various ills we suffer as a society and how we can organize to rise up and overcome them,” Jury said.
Smolarek echoed this sentiment.
“I plan on continuing and deepening my involvement, especially when it comes to organizing on Temple’s campus,” Smolarek said. “Temple students face massive debt, crippling budget cuts and tuition hikes, and an undemocratic administration that’s unresponsive to the needs of students and the community. If we organize and commit ourselves to making change, we can radically reshape the world we live in.”
Kate Kelly can be reached at email@example.com.