Students rally for a slew of causes at Occupy Philadelphia.
Senior neuroscience major Rand Williamson traveled to New York to observe the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, on Sept. 30. The next day, he was arrested.
Williamson, a member of the Student Peace Alliance, said he and his friends took part in the march on the Brooklyn Bridge, despite seeing the plastic hand-ties carried by police that suggested arrests would soon follow. He and two fellow students were among the approximate 700 arrested for obstructing a public roadway, he said.
“My experience of that weekend…it really kind of made me a believer that this movement has the potential to do real good in this country,” Williamson said, adding that the arrest was worth the court summons he received.
Since his involvement in the Wall Street demonstration, which has spawned similar actions throughout the country, Williamson has found himself outside City Hall, protesting in Occupy Philadelphia, which began Oct. 6.
Participants in the nation-wide protests are calling for an end to corporate greed, economic injustice and wealth disparity, along with a number of other grievances outlined by demonstrators, such as environmental concerns and student-loan debts.
The unifying commonality for protestors is that they’re all members of the 99 percent not included the Top 1 percent of wealthiest households.
For Williamson, it’s private money and special interests undermining the American democratic system that sparked his interest in remaining involved in the Occupy movement, he said.
Although critics have challenged demonstrators for an unfocused agenda, David Allen, a sociology professor, said the inclusiveness has helped the movement garner massive support.
“They’re very inclusive–it’s anybody who’s upset with the elites in the country, anyone who feels that they’re part of the 99 percent,” Allen said. “Whenever you have an inclusive movement like that, there’s going to be chatter, there’s going to be confusion.”
Barbara Ferman, a political science professor, said the demonstrations have questioned how great the divide is between those who have resources and those who do not.
“What has changed [in this country] is that a smaller and smaller and smaller percentage of Americans control a greater and greater amount of economic resources,” Ferman said. “It’s not an issue if you make $10 more than I do. It’s an issue if you’re making 14,000 times what I’m making.”
Citizens began setting up their encampment on the morning of Oct. 6, on the west side of City Hall.
Members publicly make decisions by a super majority rule.
Students were a visible faction of the diverse coalition of demonstrators, sporting university gear that distinguished themselves.
“[I like] that it’s fresh, that it’s new, that weeks ago this wasn’t here and now it is,” said Evan Hoskins, a sophomore history major and a member of the Temple Democratic Socialists. “We’re out here to show solidarity with everyone else who really has been affected by the corporate greed that has been taking over this country and we really want to show that we really support the democratization of the entire economic system and of the government.”
Sean Monahan, a first-year political science graduate student, said the last 40 years of American history have been a “sad story for the average person.”
“Good paying jobs have been on the decline, debt has been on the rise, student debt has been on the rise for people like us,” Monahan said. “It’s harder and harder to find jobs and, really, the corporations have just been getting richer and richer and getting more and more power over the government, over everything.”
Allen, in an email follow-up, said he believes college students are “frustrated and angry.”
“They’ve been hearing the economy is bad for almost four years so it’s not temporary, it’s far more troubling,” Allen added.
“Yes, debt is growing and a great deal of the crisis has been shifted unto their backs, their whole future will likely be affected by this depression,” Allen said. “Students also have a little more freedom from family responsibilities and [workday] life styles to engage with occupations.”
Allen said Occupy demonstrations possess some elements similar to movements seen recently in the Middle East and in U.S. history, too.
“I saw in Occupy Wall Street and some of the demonstrations around [Washington] there was a kind of festive atmosphere–people camping out and suggesting a kind of alternative lifestyle, that’s somewhat reminiscent of the ‘60s,” he said.
Since Thursday, the camp at City Hall has grown to include a family area, medical station, media center and food center.
“I was first there Thursday morning and over the course of the weekend, they’ve really transformed the plaza,” second-year law student James Clark said. “Thursday morning there was just kind of a crowd of people standing around. Last time I was there, there were about 75 tents set up, tables everywhere. It’s pretty remarkable to see how they’ve transformed the space.”
Clark said the group organizers have set up different committees for logistics surrounding security and safety, medical concerns and general comfort.
“Everything it takes to make the occupation run, there’s a working group for it,” Clark said. “There’s a ‘fun and games’ committee.”
Allen said figuring out a way to sustain the movement in the long-run is a challenge presented to the movement.
“They need to rally and sustain a movement in an ongoing way. They need to show some progress of moving in that direction,” Allen said. “It’s not a reform-based movement, it’s more a movement that is experimental, [it] is looking for alternatives that haven’t been exhausted before.”
On Friday evening, organizers encouraged people to come to the camp to watch the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“They were there occupying, but they also care about the other parts of their lives that they’re interested in,” Clark said.
During the weekend, occupiers organized two marches, one around City Hall and one to Independence Hall. The marchers were joined by legal observers, neutral third-party individuals who monitor relations between demonstrators and police in order to serve as witnesses should someone be arrested and go to trial.
“It’s a pretty easy thing to do, you just go and watch. Just being there is a deterrent for anything negative to happen,” first-year law student and legal observer Kelsey Bissonnette said.
Bissonnette had her first experience as a legal observer two weeks ago in New York City, where she observed the arrests that Williamson and other students participated in.
“It was really upsetting for me to see,” Bissonnette said. “It looked like something you would see in a war, just hundreds of people sitting on the ground, in zip-tie handcuffs, being herded on to buses. After that, I got more into the idea of legal observing.”
Also acting as a legal observer, Clark attended the Occupy Philadelphia marches this weekend and characterized them as calm.
“The protests have been well-behaved and not confrontational so far,” Clark said. “I haven’t heard of any problems or conflicts with the city or the police yet but those things could be happening and I just don’t know about them. From what I saw on the marches on Friday and Saturday, the police seemed accommodating.”
As of press time, no arrests have been made in connection with the Occupy Philadelphia demonstration.
Bissonnette said the organizers of the march to Independence Hall obtained permits for the demonstration and received a police escort during the protest.
Organizers encourage participants of the marches and occupation to remain peaceful and cooperate with police.
Ferman said tensions between occupiers and the city have been eased due to Mayor Michael Nutter’s voicing support for the movement.
“I was very pleased that he did take that attitude in contrast to the mayor of New York City, who took a very different attitude,” Ferman said. “I’m thrilled that Mayor Nutter said that. I think he did the right thing. I think what needs to happen is that more people in positions like his, elected officials, [need to get] on board to give [the movement] the political power that it needs to influence change.”
Angelo Fichera and Kate Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.