The first planning meeting of Occupy Philadelphia was to be held at the Wooden Shoe Bookstore, an anarchist collective; the day of the meeting, Thursday September 29, 200 people showed up, so it was moved to the Arch Street United Methodist Church near City Hall. The church holds a capacity of 900 people. Last night, at the first General Assembly, there were at least a thousand. The pews were packed, and though the night was cold, the church grew hot, stifling. People lined the walls, sat in the aisles, leaned over the balconies, crowded the doorways. They held signs: “IF CORPORATIONS ARE PEOPLE, THEN SHOW ME THEIR BIRTH CERTIFICATE!” “MR PRESIDENT: GROW A PAIR.” We were dazed, excited, frightened by the sheer mass of our own presence.
At the first meeting, where a decidedly more somnolent atmosphere prevailed, legal details of various kinds of occupation were hashed out with the help of free speech lawyers. Occupying federal land (Independence Mall, for example) can have tremendous symbolic power but brings with it the potential cost of being thrown into county jails in the event of arrest—and, worse, the possibility of a federal trial overseen by Republican-stocked juries, who have been notoriously unforgiving to protesters. It was left to last night’s perfervid General Assembly to decide by straw poll which, of four state-owned locations, was the best. Locations were to be judged in terms of 1) suitability for camping and access to bathroom facilities; 2) symbolism; 3) visibility; 4) the danger of displacing the homeless; and 5) whether there was history of past actions at the location.
We ruled out one immediately—Ben Franklin Parkway/Logan Square, near the art museum, which is more a place for biking, running, and barbecuing than holding the political class and the entire financial system accountable for the massive inequities of an unjust society. It came down to Rittenhouse Square, a lovely park surrounded by some of the richest real estate in the country; LOVE Park, a small square that was caddy corner from City Hall; and City Hall itself.
We broke into groupuscules and debated for ten minutes. “Clarifying questions” and “concerns” were solicited from the crowd. “There is a tight-knit community group that controls Rittenhouse Square,” someone cautioned; she meant that they could have the police there to root out protesters in no time. “That tight-knit community is the one percent!” someone cried in response; there was an exultation of cheers, along with that shimmer of raised hands and twinkling fingers that has become the protests’ accepted sign for approval. “Do these people know how Rittenhouse Square residents vote?” a hoary, bearded man behind me grumbled. “They’re like the most progressive voting bloc in the city!” Against the consensus model of the anarchist meeting, someone offered a dissensus: “I don’t think consensus is a democratic model.” “Everyone’s here, what are we waiting for? Why don’t we go occupy it now?” someone finally shouted, in frustration. “I appreciate the enthusiasm,” the moderator replied, “but that is not a clarifying question.”
Others were worried about camping facilities, the problem of sleeping on concrete (“They’re on concrete in Zuccotti Park!”), access to bathrooms. “People, this is an occupation,” a woman sternly reminded, “it doesn’t matter where we are: It—is—going—to suck!” One of the last concerns was the most vital, the one that has haunted and goaded the protests since the very beginning. “Why are we starting with direct action? I’m thinking of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail,’ where Dr. King says that we should start with what we want, then when they don’t give it to us…” His voice was lost in the ensuing murmur. It was too difficult, too thorny a question for people who were already in motion, who wanted too much, who knew too much to bear one more day of what they knew.
When the decision was made, with a forest of stiff arms and high hands, to occupy City Hall, the hands began to twinkle, to drop, to break into applause, under a high wail of cheers and ululations. Dates were debated, but there was no question that the soonest one—tomorrow, October 6th—at the earliest proposed time—9 AM—would be chosen. A member from the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies!) led us in a singing of “Solidarity Forever.” The last line, “for the union keeps us strong,” reminded me of the days I had spent in cold, cold San Francisco volunteering for the hotel workers’ union: day after day in the endless fog, handing out flyers, shouting through a bull horn, circling a lobby with picket signs, waiting patiently for a police officer to zip-tie me for blocking a street, singing union songs on the city bus commandeered to lead us to jail. There were losses every day, grievous ones, which bore directly on the welfare of thousands of workers, but there was nonetheless a steady hum of festivity to every day of work, which kept us going. Yesterday night, I felt far from the grim headlines that greeted me alone the next morning about the eurozone and the endless crisis of unemployment, because organizing, in however limited a fashion, does that to you: it keeps you, as Joe Hill might have said, from mourning.
We ended early, an unheard of phenomenon for a left wing meeting. I walked out expecting chill, but the air had warmed, or maybe I was warmer. There was City Hall: the very thing we would occupy, whose purpose we might at last bring to fruition. “Returning home, riding down Market street in an open summer car,” wrote Walt Whitman in Specimen Days,
something detain’d us between Fifteenth and Broad, and I got out to view better the new, three-fifths-built marble edifice, the City Hall, of magnificent proportions—a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, façades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful—well, I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.