The Arch Street Methodist United Church was packed with people last Tuesday night for the first meeting of Occupy Philadelphia’s general assembly. The first floor of pews filled up quickly. I arrived early and managed to get a seat that allowed me to watch what I estimated to be more than 1,000 people walk in, fill the upper balcony and then resort to sitting in the isles or standing. The amount of people that showed up was, to say the least, impressive.
The general assembly got underway and after arduous rounds of voting and attempting to reach a consensus, it was finally decided that the the occupation would begin Oct. 6 at City Hall at 9 a.m.
I think this movement has the potential to create positive change through political action because I agree with the cohesive statement that has finally begun to emerge from the group. But most importantly because this movement has finally crossed party lines, its goals of equality and freedom from corporate interest are something that nearly everyone can get behind.
Occupy Philadelphia is a movement that was born out of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City. The protests are quickly reaching the month-long mark and show no signs of letting up. These protesters, who for the sake of transparency I will state I identify with, call themselves the 99 percent and their main grievance–of which there are many–is the fact that the richest 1 percent of Americans control 49 percent of the wealth.
In my opinion, the strongest part of this movement is that it does not just consist of college-age kids, which is something that some media outlets have tried to paint the movement as. In my experience at the general assembly and the protest, the crowd was racially, socially, economically and age diverse. A white-haired elderly couple sat behind me, to my left a father with his kids and to my right a 20-something protester who told me he’d been involved in a variety of protest movements since his teenage years. He said he’d never seen something that moved or grew this quickly and told me that this was, “entirely different.”
Yes, one has to acknowledge that there are a lot of problems with this movement, at times it seems utterly directionless–there’s a lot of people wanting a lot of different things. Over time the complaints seem to have narrowed slightly, especially since the New York general assembly has voted on and released an official statement outlining their stance on issues and what they are more or less “fed up” about.
The Philly protest on Thursday was much of the same. I estimated approximately 500 or so people were there, some coming and going, but many chose to setup tents and make-shift homes to sleep in.
Admittedly, there was a portion of people there clearly just to see what the whole thing was about and, less flattering, some people there to just gawk. But overall the air was filled with a definite sense of solidarity and community. People brought free food and helped each other paint and erect housing, some set up a “medic” station to distribute first-aid supplies, while others gave advice.
Around noon on Thursday the first general assembly of the occupation started at City Hall. What struck me about the assembly was what has been dubbed “The People’s Mic,” a call and response system possible with PA speakers that allowed everyone to hear and understand what was being said by any particular speaker. Everyone gathered together, listening, repeating, understanding and respecting different opinions and beliefs. It was, in a sense, absolutely beautiful.
If anything, this populist movement and experiment in direct democracy is interesting. There is truth to the fact that many of these protesters have a wide variety of concerns–some of them nowhere near others, yet many of them do overlap. There is fair criticism that Occupy protests are somewhat scattered, but some protestors see this critique as something positive. This movement is leaderless and horizontal. There is also the obvious change that this may all fizzle out before anything is accomplished or anything concrete even happens. But at the very least, this movement is generating a much needed discussion of wealth, corporate control and the “Corporacracy” that is currently gripping American politics.
I attended most of the first general assembly meeting before responsibility called me back to Temple. But I left with a feeling of hope and pride that this wasn’t just a scattered group of pissed-off individuals, rather a collection of human beings ready and willing to do something to change the world around them. As one sign I saw quoted Gandhi, “You have to be the change in the world you wish to see.”
Kendall Sharpe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.