Occupy Philly Avoids Eviction, Police Brutality—for Now
On Sunday night, a middle-aged black man roamed through Philadelphia’s Dilworth Plaza proclaiming that “the Occupy Movement is only moving to phase two.” Despite a tremor of anxiety in his voice, he sounded optimistic. It was Occupy Philly’s fifty-sixth day in existence, and multiple longtime participants observed that more supporters had assembled there than ever before.
They came in response to Mayor Michael Nutter’s unambiguous mandate: Everyone out by Sunday at 5 pm. “You must remove all of your possessions and yourself from that location within the next forty-eight hours,” he decreed at a news conference Friday afternoon. But ultimately, nothing much came to pass. As the deadline approached, between 160 and 190 tents remained erected in the plaza, according to Richard Ross, a deputy commissioner with the Philadelphia Police Department.
The first thing I saw upon arriving at the encampment on Sunday afternoon, when the threat of forcible eviction still loomed, was a group of homeless people scrambling to load their belongings onto a pickup truck. They seemed to have a plan, but I couldn’t discern the details; most were very circumspect about answering questions. When I asked where they were going, three or four either responded very cagily, or not at all. One woman said they were headed to Delaware, but she didn’t know where in Delaware.
The pickup truck, I learned, belonged to Scott Allison, a middle-aged man from nearby Broomall who thought he’d come and help with eviction preparations. Allison said he was currently occupying his own home, which had recently been foreclosed on. “I have no power. My own situation with the economy is what it is,” he told me. “I’m just one of the guys that got hit by the bullet, shall we say.”
I asked David, an unemployed EMT working at Occupy Philly’s medical tent, where all the homeless people who’d been living at the plaza—which lies in the shadow of City Hall—would end up after that night. “The same places they went before,” he said. “Subways and shelters; corners, alleys. The places they’ve been living for decades.” David, who asked that his last name be withheld, spoke softly, almost ruefully.
“I’d like to think that we’ve gotten some folks some legitimate help, but it’s hard to say,” he added.
While the homeless Occupiers coordinated their exit, many newcomers were gathering at the other end of the plaza. Demonstrators sat on the ground in rows of twenty, preparing to peacefully resist any coercive removal by the Philadelphia police. They held an impromptu General Assembly–type session, during which participants described their dreams for the future. Three facilitators took the lead. As the night went on, supporters filled the surrounding area. Occupants who’d been working with the Safety subgroup ensured that avenues of entry were kept unobstructed for police, should they decide to move in on the encampment.
Throughout the evening, sanitation workers hauled debris into dump trucks, and a number of police personnel—including officers with the department’s Homeland Security unit—lingered along the perimeter. In general, law enforcement were quite subdued and respectful, in stark contrast to the aggressive mania that has characterized the NYPD’s response to Occupy Wall Street.
Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan was on hand to speak with journalists, concerned citizens and anyone else who might have a query. He’d been tasked with the Occupy Philly detail since Day One. “So I’m well-schooled in it,” Sullivan said. “I understand the City and Commissioner [Charles] Ramsey’s position.”
“And I definitely want to really stress,” he told me, “that overall, the vast majority of the people that have been part of this movement—even those people that have been arrested—they have been cooperative, and they have been respectful, and they have always been nonviolent.”
“I’ve always been very appreciative of that,” Sullivan added.
When police made arrests at the November 2 civil disobedience action at the headquarters for media conglomerate Comcast, located in Philadelphia’s financial district, Sullivan said demonstrators repeatedly thanked police—even as they were led away in handcuffs. (Nearby, “Evict Comcast, Assholes!” was scrawled on the exterior of a tent, in bubble letters.)
As a general observation, in terms of tone and level of respect for Occupiers, there seemed to be a major gulf between police in New York and police in Philadelphia. When I asked senior-looking officers about police tactics and the like, it almost came as a shock to me that they were perfectly willing to have candid conversations. In New York, extracting more than a few words from an officer is often a struggle.
Mayor Nutter has spoken sympathetically about the Occupy movement, going so far as to adopt its nomenclature. He said that the ostensible pretext for evicting the encampment—that final permits had just been authorized for construction project there—was "by the 99 percent for the 99 percent.”
Compared with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose utter contempt for Occupy Wall Street was on clear display from the outset, Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey have been notably diplomatic—at least with their public statements—a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Occupiers. For example, a small placard on the ground quoted a recent interview of Ramsey in which he said the police’s “job” is to “help protect their [people’s] right to assemble, to protest.” Demonstrators told me they’ve witnessed personnel with the department’s Civil Affairs Unit read aloud the First Amendment to officers before the start of every shift.
“Mayor Nutter is a pretty wise person,” said Ryan, a 20-something Occupier who had been participating since Day One. “He knows what’s going on. And he knows, if anything happens, pitting the police against us is going to tarnish his career.”
John Perez, a representative of OccupyTheHood, the Occupy-affiliated outreach group that aims to enfranchise minority communities in the wider movement, said that officers’ cordial behavior should be understood in the context of the department’s troubled history with racially motivated police violence. “I think Michael Nutter is aware of that, being a black man,” Perez said.
At around 8 pm—three hours after the stated deadline for demonstrators to vacate—I counted only eight officers at the entrance of the plaza. One can imagine the massive quantity of NYPD officers that would have inevitably blanketed the area for an analogous situation in Lower Manhattan. Indeed, Ryan told me that on a typical day, Philly police are relatively placid. “They’ll just stand around,” he said. “You can actually go up there and bullshit with them—they’re not bad people, but they kind of just want you to ignore the fact that they’re there.”