The American left has been waiting the whole Great Recession for an inspiring protest movement. Envious of their European counterparts abroad and the Tea Party at home, progressives watched with growing rage as the Obama administration compromised its way through its first term and historic Democratic congressional majorities withered away. Now, as Occupy Wall Street protests spread across the nation, the excitement is evident, despite the sobering circumstances.
Thursday, October 6 marked the opening round of Occupy Philadelphia, just one facet of a widening movement. Hundreds of protesters massed in front of City Hall and promptly began settling in for a long stay. The crowd immediately began organizing itself, creating everything from a “Welcoming and Comfort Committee” to a “Security Committee.” The encampment soon rang with the familiar chant “This is What Democracy Looks Like” and the theme of the occupations: “We Are the 99 Percent.” People erected tents, lofted signs, and debated each other ceaselessly. The mood was electric.
“This is one of the most amazing turnouts for an event I’ve ever seen and I’ve been organizing for 10 years,” said Amanda Geraci, organizer and participant.
As the day wore on, the crowd waxed and waned; swelling at the noon lunch break, receding at quitting time, and growing steadily again throughout the evening. The food committee set tables for eating, water and coffee. The family area, complete with No Smoking signs, provided room for children to play. Lawyers gave “Know Your Rights” talks. In the coming days, Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania staffers will be on call to provide crisis intervention and emotional support, as needed.
Philadelphia isn’t alone. Similar protests modeled on the famous Occupy Wall Street actions are spreading all over the nation. Occupy Philly lagged behind other large cities including Boston (September 30) and Seattle (October 1). Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans, which also began its occupation on Thursday, are among the many other host cities. While it is hard to get an exact total, the website Occupy Together has a list of 865 participating cities, including solidarity rallies on every continent, save Antarctica. Chris Bowers at Daily Kos is charting the expansion of the movement in the U.S., although his most recent post (from Tuesday) on the subject showed over 200 occupations.
Each occupation sports a regional flavor. One Philadelphia protester gave passersby an animated lecture on the city’s “corrupt politics” and argued for City Council term limits. The march that kicked off the New Orleans march began at the notorious Orleans Parish prison, an institution the Department of Justice has critiqued for violence against inmates.
But all the occupations focus on the same core issues: unemployment, corporate welfare, foreclosures, and crushing personal debt.
“There is no longer the guarantee that if you work hard you will succeed,” says Ben Webster, an Occupy Philadelphia participant who hopes to see the movement use direct action to prevent foreclosures, as protesters have in Spain. “The only thing many people come out of college with is debt. All we have is austerity and crisis.”
“The big corporations are getting richer and richer, while working people every day are getting poorer,” says Alfonso Pulido, a former machine operator in Chicago who was laid off as a result of the recession.* “In the face of unemployment and in this economic landscape we need to mobilize at every level to get jobs to return so that we can provide for our families. I’ve been here 23 years and never been unemployed before. I’m not interested in handouts, I’m interested in working.”