Duct Tape, Jesus, Hookahs and Hats: Alaina Mabaso’s Blog visits Occupy Philadelphia

As City Hall’s nine o’clock bells rang mellow over the Broad Street traffic and the rhythmic swells of chanting, I burst out of the train station after twelve hours trapped in the suburbs.  I had been peeking at my iPad for hours, for news on how the 5pm eviction deadline had played out for the protestors who have been camping for over two months at City Hall’s Dilworth Plaza.

I arrived as the last 9pm bell extinguished itself in the crowd. About 75 people – mostly my own age, but several older citizens as well – huddled together on the wide, west-facing steps overlooking Market Street. Over a hundred others on their feet milled around the seated crowd. Hectic staffers kept waving them out of tracks on the ground marked with duct tape, kept clear in case of a medical emergency.

Occupiers had taken their pens to the tape as enthusiastically as they had to their signs.

This duct tape is the 99%.

This duct tape is unstoppable/Another world is possible.

 Fuck the police.

The law-enforcement in question loitered contentedly at the 15th Street crosswalk, in front of a burly police van. A fire-truck’s siren sliced through the crowd and the protestors raised their palms like devout parishioners, cheering. But the flashing lights slid away down 15th Street to their own crisis.

I wondered through the crowd and spoke with a young man in a crisp, olive-green military uniform. He noted that the crowd had been dwindling over the last few hours.  He held a hot coal in a small pair of tongs.

“What’ve you got there?” I asked.

“Hookah coal,” he said.

“Hookah, yeah,” drawled a man who had stopped to watch our exchange. He was wearing a hard hat and a sweatshirt hung from his waist like an apron.

The plaza trashcans overflowed and hand-written cardboard signs littered the ground like the detritus of a flood. A group of skate-board-toting youths fresh from New York City embraced Philadelphia counterparts.

As white Styrofoam containers, paper plates of pizza and coffee-cups surfed the crowd on the ground, a series of call and response chants arose.

“Mic check!” called a man.

“Mic check!” the crowd answered.

“I want to live in a world,”

I want to live in a world,”

“Where people aren’t lazy!”

Where people aren’t lazy!”

“Where people can put away their cars,”

Where people can put away their cars,”

“Get on a bus or get a bike,”

“Get on a bus or get on a bike,”

“Or WALK!”

“Or WALK!”

“And not be LAZY!”

“And not be LAZY!”

A man standing at the edge of the group clutched a sign that said EVICT RACISM. A table behind the sitters was draped with an anti-fracking banner.

“Mic check!”

“Mic check!”

“MIC CHECK!”

“MIC CHECK!”

“I want to live in a world,”

“I want to live in a world,”

Where old people have the same rights as the young!”

Where old people have the same rights as the young!”

“Mic check!”

“Mic check!”

“I am mentally ill.”

“I am mentally ill.”

“People in America who are mentally ill are afraid every day.”

People in America who are mentally ill are afraid every day.”

“I don’t want to be afraid anymore!”

“I don’t want to be afraid anymore!”

I saw an opening in the crowd and planted my own rear somewhat gingerly next to two young women on the ground, one of them avidly knitting a multicolored balaclava.

“I get fidgety,” Anna, the knitter, explained as she tugged yarn out of her backpack. Whether she was fidgety from boredom or from the nearby police was unclear. “I haven’t been arrested yet,” she said, explaining that she had been participating in Occupy Philadelphia since the very first night, and had joined several marches, but that her day job as an actress prevented her from sleeping at Dilworth.

“They’ll kill me if I get arrested,” her companion Melissa added, meaning her rehearsal colleagues. The women both had rehearsal the next morning, but felt it was important to show their support. “I want to stay the course, but I’ve got stuff to do,” Anna said.

“Mic check!”

Mic check!”

“I believe,”

“I believe,”

“That if Jesus was alive right now, he’d be right here!”

If Jesus was alive right now, he’d be right here!”

“Mic check,”

“Mic check,”

“No offense,”

“No offense,”

“But I believe He IS here!”

“But I believe He IS here!”

“Mic check,”

“Mic check,”

“I believe,”

“I believe,”

“Every religious founder revered over the world would be here!”

“Every religious founder revered over the world would be here!”

Even at their most irritated, Americans are nothing if not religious.

Chants rose for an hour or more: underwater mortgages, veteran’s benefits, the end of war, Constitutional rights to peaceful assembly, high unemployment, corporate greed, and more.  One man raised a chant reminding the crowd that if people were borne away on stretchers due to violence as the night wore on, not to take flash pictures of them, as the flash could be dangerous to those who have been injured.

As I chatted with Ann and Melissa, a handsome young man with long dark hair turned towards us. Brandon had been arrested on October 23rd protesting peacefully outside of the Philadelphia Police Headquarters. He dwelt on the human dilemma of consuming large amounts of coffee just before linking arms for the day with a chain of fellow protestors.

“Every Democrat will tell you, we need twice as many people on the police force,” he said. “But all I can see is a whole lot of people filling out the same paperwork over and over again.”

He had lived under Giuliani in New York City without ever having been arrested at a protest, and it became a sort of life goal that finally happened in Philadelphia.

“I always wanted to get arrested in a disciplined, non-violent way,” he said.

Having spent the day in inner turmoil over allegations of police brutality against journalists covering the Occupy movement, and the sour implications for my country, somehow his statement gave me a small, hopeful lift. Despite comparisons to Arab Spring revolutions on the Dilworth signs, perhaps an ardent protester’s firm belief that his inevitable sojourn in handcuffs would be safe and orderly is something worth appreciating.  Compared to some of their brethren throughout the world, the personal stakes for American protestors may not be as high. But perhaps my taking comfort from this is a sign of how bad things are getting around here.

Arrested with 15 other people, Brandon complained that it took “a long-ass time til we got fingerprinted.” Consultation with judges and bail officers took place over video feeds. He claimed that they were all denied a phone call: “Do you want a phone call, or do you want to get out of here as fast as possible?” the officers goaded, according to him.

“Mic check!”

A stocky man with an open jacket and a buzz cut raised a hand just behind me.

“Mic check!”

The crowd enthusiastically echoed his opening sentiments on citizens’ rights and freedoms. Then he turned to a proposed plan to converge on the ritzy Rittenhouse Square neighborhood the next afternoon, following the impending City Hall eviction.

“This is where the rich live, work and play!”

“This is where the rich live, work and play!”

“And I think we should fuck Rittenhouse Square up BAD!”

The chant trailed away to an awkward silence.

“Come on guys!” he shouted. “That place has big banks on every corner!”

That place has big banks on every corner!”

“And I think we should fuck those corners UP!”

Mohawks bobbed and rotated as people whispered to their neighbors.  Acrid cigarette smoke hung silently over the watchers. A streetlight glinted in an old man’s glasses.

“Mic check!” yelled a petite woman with long, hot-pink braids and a pierced, tattooed face.

Mic check!”

“Please stop fucking up our non-violent protest!”

The crowd’s voice seemed to swell with relief.

Please stop fucking up our non-violent protest!”

“We don’t need to fuck things up!”

“We don’t need to fuck things up!”

“We just need to show up!”

We just need to show up!”

A raft of chants on physical solidarity, homelessness, the Center City District, and the privatization of public spaces followed.

“Mic check!” cried the man with the buzz cut.

Mic check,” the crowd answered warily.

“I am a devout Buddhist.”

I am a devout Buddhist.”

“I didn’t mean to be violent,”

“I didn’t mean to be violent,”

“I just meant, Rittenhouse Square is a GREAT place to occupy!”

“I just meant, Rittenhouse Square is a GREAT place to occupy!”

I wanted to stay on the outskirts of the crowd, chatting with people and watching to see if and when the police would move in, and what would happen when they did.

I may not be the 1%, but I have work to do. The cold of the dirty concrete plaza was seeping through my jeans, and I hauled myself back to my feet and left the scene, a 99-percenter preparing for tomorrow’s interview and trying to get a good night’s sleep.

I felt an odd stab of thanks for the laws and traffic lights that kept me safe in the city crosswalk, but just as grateful for the companionable, optimistic and occasionally ominous disorder behind me. I passed the policemen and headed downstairs to catch my train home.

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6 Comments

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  1. This is the first account I’ve read by someone “embedded” in one of these groups. So much of this seems to be a general frustration, without knowledge of the issues that got us into the mess that we are in right now, like getting rid of the legislation that prevented banks from speculating with people’s money. The issues are real, the gatherings sometimes unreal. Is anyone listening between the lines?

    • I’m definitely not embedded – while I’ve taken strolls through the protesters’ camp to see what was going on, and try to glean a message for myself apart from what the media says, I haven’t been involved with the movement at all. But I’ve been following the story, and I think a lot of the people involved have worthwhile causes, and I look forward to watching the story unfold. I just wanted to check it out for myself and put a snippet of it out there in my own words.

  2. Too much of the f word for me to enjoy this blog.

  3. I have felt that some of this protest is creating more of what they are protesting and that it didn’t seem like there was any way to accomplish what they are looking for, if they even know what they are looking to accomplish themselves. I understand the frustration, it is shared among many. However I don’t think this group has any way of actually accomplishing much beyond clogging up Philly traffic and holding up city improvements. Thank you for a true unbiased account, I appreciated your views and enjoyed the read.

    • Thanks for visiting and for your comment – I’m glad you thought the piece was worthwhile. I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of Occupy, but I certainly understand the problems it’s addressing.

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