Fueled by citizens discontented with an economic system that they say favors 1% of the population at the expense of the remaining 99%, the Occupy protests that began on Wall Street more than a month ago have spread across the United States and the world. Occupy Philly, Philadelphia’s version of the protests, began on October 6 and has since blossomed into its own city-within-a-city outside City Hall, complete with food and medical services, a makeshift library, laptop charging stations and hundreds of residential tents.
Though there are ideological divisions within the movement — on Sunday afternoon, volunteers wearing Ron Paul t-shirts staffed an “End the Fed” tent at one end of the occupation while a leftist professor held a teach-in at the other — Swarthmore alumni involved with the demonstration said the protesters nevertheless share much in common.
“We’re here because of economic policies that have benefited 1% of the country and taken advantage of the other 99%,” said Gwen Snyder ’08, director of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice as well as the Labor working group for Occupy Philly.
“People have different opinions about how to fix this issue, but the theoretical message is consistent,” Snyder said. She added that the Ron Paul contingent “is a testament to the fact that such a wide range of people are upset with the situation.”
Using the labor connections she established through her job at PJJ, Snyder coordinates donations from unions sympathetic with Occupy Philly like the Transit Workers Union, which donated porta-potties. PJJ also serves as the fiscal sponsor for Occupy Philly, since Occupy can’t legally receive donations as they are not recognized by the government for tax purposes.PJJ receives donations into a tax-eligible account designated for Occupy Philly, to which organizers then have access.
Snyder believes these donations along with the efforts of organizers will allow the protest to continue indefinitely. “It’s a group of people who are really dedicated to making the occupation work,” Snyder said. “This will be a long-term occupation. People are making sure there’s an infrastructure, making sure they’re communicating.”
Another Swarthmore alumnus, Matthew Armstead ’08, who has been actively involved with Occupy Philly, pointed to the mood on-site as evidence that the protests are having a positive impact on the protesters themselves.
“There’s hope that’s really palpable [among the protesters] that they can actually do something about their situation,” Armstead said. “When they first arrive there’s a lot of despair and anger, but they’re finding a way to process through that despair and be listened to. A lot of people are having their needs met in that way.”
Armstead also disputed the idea that the Occupy movement in general even needed standard goals and strategies. “The creation of space in many ways is what it’s all about,” Armstead said. “Creating a space is an action that allows people to reimagine what a movement can be. The space created at Occupy Philly provides support for people who do not feel heard.”
Armstead is part of the Direct Democracy Facilitation Working group, a group that works to ensure each Occupier’s voice is heard. Working groups, the organizational units of Occupy Philly, are essentially committees assigned to tackle one issue facing the protests, whether it be legal, safety, education, or one of many others. Armstead’s working group organizes daily general assemblies, community-wide meetings that provide a chance for residents of the tent city and visitors to catch up on what the various working groups are doing, and to stand up and speak if they so choose.
Additionally, proposals are presented, discussed and voted on at the general assemblies. This is a major part because the proposal process is how decisions are made.
In the eyes of Kate Aronoff ’14, the general assemblies are part of what makes the movement unique. “Occupy protestors are actively acting out the world they’d like to see,” Aronoff said. “It’s something that’s obvious the minute you step into a general assembly. Everyone at the GA can have a say in what’s happening, and it’s been a major part of what’s kept me and a lot of others coming back,” she said.
The assemblies are a centerpiece of daily life at Occupy Philly, which also features meals and snacks, teach-ins and occasional formal demonstrations on any issues relating to the movement; on Tuesday, for example, there was a march for universal health care.
Another issue that has become particularly prominent at Occupy Philly is homelessness. In deciding to hold the occupation outside City Hall, the organizers knew they would uproot the homeless people who used the square as a sleeping area. With this in mind, they established a Homeless Outreach Committee, staffed in part by homeless people. Through the efforts of the committee, the homeless community was integrated into the protest. “Homeless people are included in the decision-making processes,” Armstead said. “In thinking about any action we always ask how that decision will affect the homeless community.”
Natalia Choi ’15, who visited Occupy Wall Street, noticed an ideological spread among the protesters. Nevertheless, she repeated a slogan that she believes ties the movements together: “corporations are privatizing the profits and socializing the risks.”
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