The NYC occupation is influencing similar Philadelphia plans for action by citizens.
While most students were celebrating the start of the weekend or preparing for Temple’s football game, several Temple law students were boarding a bus to serve as legal observers to the Occupy Wall Street rallies on Friday, Sept. 30.
Protesters set up tents in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Sept. 17, and held demonstrations in the nearby financial district. Operating under the name Occupy Wall Street, the movement aims to end the corrupt economic practices by corporations in the United States and financial inequality.
Often criticized as lacking a focused message, participants tote signs that address issues ranging from wealth disparity to inadequate health care.
“Nobody knows what it’s about,” said senior social work major Adam Macguire. “People are just dissatisﬁed with the current situation that they’re living in. There isn’t really a set of demands. It seems like it’s a really big movement and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever come across because there’s not a real target.”
Second-year law student Diane Akerman said she was struck by the diversity of the participants and the organization of occupation.
“There were all kinds of people there, which I always think is really great to see,” Akerman said. “It was also really calm and really well-organized. At the actual camp they have set up in Zuccotti Park, they had a full library and full media center and a cafeteria area. People in the neighborhood have been donating food to [the occupiers]. It was really kind of functioning as this communal camp ground.”
As the occupation enters its third week, tensions in New York City between police and protestors appear to be increasing.
Four days before the Temple law students made the trip to New York, a video circulated on the Internet depicting a police officer pepper spraying young women, who appeared to be protesting peacefully.
This incident and several other instances of police brutality prompted the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive organization of legal workers, to put out a call for legal observers to come and monitor the subsequent protests.
“Legal observers are sort of neutral third party observers to the protests. We’re there to observe and document what’s going on,” second-year law student James Clark said. “We were there, we saw what happened, and we’re available to write afﬁdavits or testify to it if necessary.”
“We’re there to make sure that everybody is acting the way they’re supposed to, that the police are acting appropriately and not encroaching on people’s rights as protestors, and watching the protestors to see how they’re acting with the police,” Akerman added.
Akerman emphasized her neutrality and stated that the trip was an opportunity to learn more about an issue in which she is interested.
“I went down as a legal observer because I wanted to learn more about what exactly was going on,” Akerman said. “Rather than jumping in and aligning myself with the protests, [I wanted to] ﬁgure out exactly what it is that’s happening.”
Clark and Akerman wore green hats that identified them as legal observers and were instructed to write down everything they saw occurring during the protests.
On Friday, demonstrators marched from Zuccotti Park to One Police Plaza, which they then occupied for several hours. Clark believes this march was billed as being against police brutality and characterizes the event as calm and peaceful.
“[There were] no arrests that I’m aware of, [it was] a very civil affair,” Clark said. “We got to the police plaza and everybody sat down and there were some speeches and everybody walked back to the park.”
This was not the case on the following day, Clark said.
Clark said that when protestors mobilized Saturday afternoon, the destination of the march was unclear to many. When the group of several thousand arrived at the Brooklyn Bridge, some went up onto the pedestrian walkway and others began blocking traffic in the Brooklyn-bound roadway. Police began surrounding those on the street, some of whom tried to climb up iron supports to the pedestrian walkway to escape arrest.
Reports estimate that more than 700 people were arrested during the protest.
The majority of those arrested will be charged with disorderly conduct, Clark said. He went on to question the validity of those arrests, citing general confusion and lack of communication on the part of the police.
“The police are saying that they warned people that if there was anyone on the roadway that they would be arrested but it’s not clear that anybody except a few people at the front of the march ever heard that announcement,” Clark said. “There’s some question as to the police’s complicity and culpability in the protestors being on the roadway in the ﬁrst place.”
The instances of police brutality and the recent mass arrests in New York City have inspired the formation of solidarity groups and actions in cities around the country, including Philadelphia.
Occupy Philadelphia organizers held an initial planning meeting on Sept. 29 at Arch Street United Methodist Church. According to the event’s Facebook page, the meeting attracted approximately 400 people.
“The meeting was more or less a group of individuals that came together from Pennsylvania who were discussing locations to occupy and what kind of committees to make for the occupation,” Macguire said. “I attended the meeting because I’d like to get active in anything that would stop the inequality of the income, wealth, education, access to healthcare, the criminal justice system [and] the dissatisfaction with the way Philadelphia operates, Pennsylvania operates, our nation operates within the globe.”
The meeting was conducted in a democratic format, with every decision voted on by attendees, Macguire said.
“It was very, very democratic, at times almost painfully democratic,” Macguire said. “The way the meeting was held was different than anything I’ve ever been to before. I was really curious and that’s why I went but I may have been even more confused after the meeting on what the objective was.”
The group will meet again tonight, Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Arch Street United Methodist Church to vote on a state-owned location to occupy, as well as a date and time for the occupation to begin.
Despite increasing national interest and the emergent solidarity groups, Akerman said the movement has been marked by a lack of coverage by the mainstream media.
“It’s been really bizarre to watch the media ignore it,” Akerman said. “It’s really strange to have seen it and then know that it’s just not being talked about it at all because it did feel like there was something really going on. There were a lot of people there and I wonder how long it can go on being ignored.”
Kate Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.