Occupying in the Shadow of Frank Rizzo


It was 10:30 pm on Dilworth Plaza, the concrete apron around Philadelphia City Hall that’s home for over 100 tents in the Occupy Philadelphia movement. The air was clear and the temperature was pleasant.

Occupiers collected in clusters, talking, some smoking and drinking out of cups. A tall, good-natured African American man performed a spoken-word dance routine before an audience of 15 people. People were still tabling the Information Tent and some were inside the Media Tent doing official Occupation work. There was not a cop in sight.

“We need to march in solidarity with the people of Oakland!” a young woman announced using a microphone. She referred to the war-zone-style police assault on the Occupy Oakland encampment the night before, where an Iraq veteran member of Veterans For Peace had been shot in the head by a police projectile; he was still unconscious and in critical condition in an Oakland hospital.

A crowd began to congregate around the young woman with the mike, some taking the mike to express their outrage over the police assault in Oakland. Someone mentioned Atlanta, where the same night police had cleared occupiers from a city park, arresting 53 people. The plan was to march around City Hall.

The street was empty as they took off and began to holler, “Whose street? Our Street!” Someone had made a crude sign mentioning Oakland. On the south side of City Hall, I noticed a uniformed policeman heading the other way at a brisk walk, as if he didn’t want to deal with these people. Hey, let ‘em have the damn street! A lone taxi drove by, and its immigrant driver honked enthusiastically. The marchers waved back.

When they got to the north side of City Hall, the group marched across the street onto the plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building, ending up at the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, an Italian beat cop who became police commissioner and then mayor. He was famous for going to his mayoral inauguration with a nightstick in the cummerbund of his tuxedo. Rizzo enjoyed telling people how much he admired an Italian police tactic known as spacco il capo — “break their heads.” He was notorious during the insurgent sixties and seventies for saying he was going to clear out the city in such a way to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” Leading some police operation in one of the neighborhoods in the 1970s, he told an acquaintance of mine who expressed some concern about the brutal action to shut up and get off his porch, “Or I’ll come up there and break your back.”

The marchers clustered at the base of the statue of Rizzo extending his right arm. Depending on one’s point of view, Rizzo is either making a warm, paternal gesture or he’s giving a limp parody of the Nazi salute.

During a 45 minute discussion under the statue, a marcher pointed to the occupation tents across the street at City Hall and said angrily, “We’re only there because the police let us stay there.” Of course, he was right. While the Philadelphia Police Department and its Civil Affairs Unit have so far been respectful, it’s ultimately the decision of the mayor and his police commissioner whether they remain, a decision based on public pressure coming from two polarized political directions. There’s also the desire to avoid a public relations nightmare like the one that occurred in Oakland.

Dancing With the Mayor and the Police

After the police assault, Oakland Mayor Jean Quon – a former civil rights activist — publicly apologized for the police action. Over 1000 people, then, re-entered Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and are camped there now. There seems to be a rift between the mayor and her police leadership, with the mayor trying to make up for the assault while the police sulk and agonize.

“I think we’re in trouble. We’ve been placating these people so long that they don’t take us seriously,” one Oakland officer told The Bay Citizen newspaper. “If you run this red light 10 times and I’m sitting there and on the 11th time I give you a ticket, you’re going to say, you’ve been watching me this whole time and today you’ve decided to do something about it?”

This Oakland cop doesn’t seem to get it that one of the most glaring realities in America is the selective enforcement of the many laws on the books. And it’s cops who have the power to exercise much of that discretion. In fact, one can argue much of the financial debacle and the endless wars infuriating so many Americans (especially those in the various Occupations) is about selectively not enforcing the Constitution and other laws against the top tier of American citizenry.

Like Oakland, Philadelphia has allowed the occupation to settle in. At the same time, it’s a city with a history of notoriously brutal and/or un-constitutional police action. First there’s the brutality of the Rizzo years; then, following the 2000 Republican convention, the City of Philadelphia paid out millions in lawsuit fines for Constitutional abuses such as pre-emptive mass arrests based on suspicion or bogus “intelligence” and just snatching people off the street for no justifiable reason.

Since then, the department’s Civil Affairs Unit has worked gracefully and respectfully with antiwar demonstrations and vigils, which, of course, have shriveled significantly since the huge February 15, 2003 demonstration. A prominent Civil Affairs officer told me that Philly cops have a policy to never use gas – although they have it as an absolute last resort. He said, however, that’s not the case in other cities, where it is a first option. The Oakland war-zone approach suggests that he’s right. A Philadelphia police spokesman told the press recently that they have no plans to forcibly remove the Occupy Philadelphia encampment.

City Managing Director Richard Negrin wrote a cordial letter to an Occupy Philadelphia spokeswoman on October 11, the sixth day of the occupation. It’s posted in several places on Dilworth Plaza.

“The relationship between organizers and the city is being heralded as a national model on how to celebrate Free Speech in an effective manner,” he writes. He mentions in the letter some “minor deviations in the promises made to the city at the outset.” He cites examples of “public urination, litter and acts of graffiti.” He ends by “formally requesting a weekly meeting with representatives of Occupy Philadelphia,” and he hopes that Philadelphia can “serve as a beacon of the First Amendment.”

Despite the cordiality of this letter, there is evidence of a growing campaign forming in the city to dislodge the occupation. Winter may also have a say in the matter.

Chris Satullo, the head of news at WHYY, the NPR station in Philadelphia, recently broadcast a negative editorial about the Occupy Philadelphia movement. He criticized the movement for claiming citizens have a “right” to health care and a job. He didn’t actually say the occupiers should “Get a job!” but he came close to it.

“Providing jobs and health care is hard, messy, practical work involving realism about money and politics,” he said. “Chanting about rights is more a way of avoiding that work than beginning it.” Occupiers, he concluded, “have little patience for the hard work of democratic persuasion.”

Satullo’s perennial campaign for civil political discourse often made in his “Centre Square” columns has great merit, but here he’s nothing but a middlebrow, liberal scold. He talks about democratic change being such “hard work,” but he doesn’t touch at all on the current tragedy where democracy in America is bought and sold before it ever gets to the ordinary citizen. He may have a nice pulpit, but ordinary Americans are more and more effectively disenfranchised from the decision-making process.

The editorial line Satullo has taken may find followers in the city, but it’s basically a repudiation of the famous quote by Frederick Douglas: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” The Occupy Movement, like all populist insurgent movements, is necessarily a bit ragged and, thus, may not be a perfect expression of Roberts Rules Of Order or power elite etiquette. But that’s actually the point.

If Satullo thinks Occupy Philadelphia is about declaring jobs and health care as rights, he’s dead wrong. What the occupation movement is about is using the uncontested First Amendment right to express the demands to power that Douglas referred to. The abolitionist Douglas certainly knew better than most the many ways good, upstanding Americans could muster to avoid making those demands of power in America.

The other anti-occupation argument surfacing now in the city is about the cost of the police response to the Occupation. An Occupy Philadelphia spokeswoman responded to this charge on WHYY recently by saying much of the police presence is unnecessary, that the Occupy movement was quite capable of providing its own security and monitoring its own activities. For instance, there were no police after 10 pm the night I was at City Hall. Plus, why is that police costs aren’t an issue when it’s about protecting businesses, but it is an issue when it’s about protecting the right of citizens to redress real grievances.

Mayor Michael Nutter is running in a November 9th election, and some occupiers suspect he is holding off a violent confrontation until after his expected re-election. One marcher under the Rizzo statue was certain the mayor was just waiting until after the election to attack and clear City Hall. A pre-occupation planned construction project for Dilworth Plaza slated to begin in November could become a hot button issue in this respect.

In his letter to the occupiers, Managing Director Negrin refers to a “Dilworth Plaza construction project that has been in the works for 2 years which will affect your relocation date. Your permit currently states as agreed, that Occupy Philadelphia will vacate the premises at the start date of the construction.”

Some occupiers say no such agreement was made. The construction project is to take over two years and cost $55 million, $50 million of it from federal stimulus funds. The Dilworth Plaza redesign project will involve a pond that can be turned into a skating rink in the winter, a large green lawn space and a café. Some Occupy Philadelphia members question the number of permanent jobs the project will develop once construction is over. Others say the stimulus money should be used for things like low-income housing. A meeting between the city and Occupy Philadelphia to address this and the matter of moving is reportedly planned soon.

The 30 occupiers under Frank Rizzo’s arm held their 45-minute informal discussion utilizing The Occupation Rules of Order. When someone wanted to talk, he or she shouted “Mike check!” It wasn’t perfect, and some people tended to hog the “mike.” But for the most part it was respectful and no one was shut out. When listeners liked what they heard, fluttering hands and fingers went up.

The questions involved: Who are we? What are we about? And how do we express those things? Some talked about the need to reach out to others in the city. Some wanted to clarify the occupation’s message. An African American man wanted to occupy the ‘hood. Another man wanted to bring down Capitalism, while one of his comrades pointed out how ultimately immense, complicated and impossible that was.

One clear-eyed and compelling young man jumped in and said it wasn’t a matter of deciding which ideas, needs or projects were important but that the group should express all of them and work for all of them — that, in the end, in the process of working for all of them, it would be revealed which ones were the important ones. He wasn’t satisfied with the response to his suggestion. His remarks sounded good, but they also raised too many questions for an impromptu gathering on the street.

One thing was clear: These young Americans were fed up. They had been brought to the realization their society was a top-down, unfair maze of corruption more concerned about overseas military adventures and a bogus “free” market that benefited the rich than about the ever worsening circumstances of ordinary citizens at the bottom. Somehow, by their sense of urgency and demand, their determination to occupy ground, they wanted to facilitate some kind of reform of the system so they might fit into it as creative members of society. You got the sense they felt locked out or overwhelmed by the incredible dishonesty of it all. I’m 64-years-old, and I certainly felt that way.

A Lesson From Atlanta

While Oakland was a police debacle with obvious lessons for cities across the nation, the shutting down of the occupation in Atlanta seems instructive for the occupy movement. There are real questions about the political wisdom of at least some elements of the Occupy Atlanta group and whether they may have provoked the assault on October 26 that led to their removal and the arrest of 53 occupiers.

Occupy Atlanta first made news by not having the time to allow Rep. John Lewis to speak; Lewis is a veteran civil rights activist beaten and jailed in the sixties. He would seem an ideal ally. A contact of mine in Atlanta familiar with city politics says things began to go south following Mayor Kasim Reed’s cancellation of a hip-hop concert planned for Woodruff Park, the location of the occupation. The mayor felt it would lead to trouble, since they were promoting a major hip-hop star who, he learned, had not committed to appear.

Some occupiers went public saying it wasn’t up to the mayor to cancel a concert in the park, since Occupy Atlanta controlled the park, not the city. A representative from the mayor’s PR office reportedly then went to the park and was harassed by occupiers who stalked her as she attempted to flee. The final straw may have been the right-wing Tea Party type who showed up at the park with a legal, loaded AK-47, showing off his Second Amendment rights when the issue for the Occupy Movement is First Amendment rights.

Kasim, a young African American mayor, had initially signed an executive order to allow the occupiers to remain overnight in the park, but in the end, he ordered his cops to clear the park. Occupy Atlanta is now a vagabond occupation looking for a new home.

If there is a moral to this story it’s to avoid becoming too full of one’s power in the self-reinforcing echo-chamber of an occupation site. Also, it’s probably good to balance righteousness and exuberance with a little mature political wisdom and diplomacy. Periodic reality checks can’t hurt; the same goes for allowing at least enough hierarchical authority so anyone who acts stupid enough to threaten the occupation can be voted off the island.

Finally, if you’re going to get ejected, hope for stupid, pepper-spray and tear-gas affairs like in New York and Oakland, which blew up in their faces and made their respective occupations even stronger.

A 99-minute general strike is planned for November 2nd in honor of Scott Olsen, the Iraq veteran wounded in the Oakland melee. In Philadelphia, it will be from noon to 1:39 pm — 99 minutes for Americans to stop what they’re doing and consider the fate of Olsen and the fate of all of us whose lives are so determined by entrenched wealth and power.

JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the independent online alternative newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues DAVE LINDORFF, LINN WASHINGTON, JR., and CHARLES M. YOUNG, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net


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JOHN GRANT is a member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, uncompromised, five-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.