“It’s Our Reality; Fuck Police Brutality”
Around 4 p.m. on October 22, the National Day of Awareness against Police Brutality, thirteen folks from Occupy Philly set out on a spontaneous “snake” march, winding their way on foot from City Hall plaza to the Roundhouse, Philadelphia’s police headquarters, on 8th between Race and Arch. There, the thirteen people sat down in a circle on 8th Street to talk, and soon, a growing crowd of some forty or so folks from the occupation stood behind them, in the street and on the sidewalk. The police obliged this impromptu sit-down by blockading the street and diverting traffic, and then did what they do best here at Occupy Philly, now in front of their own home base: gathovertime for themselves, hovering around on the sidelines in small batches of cops—ranging from Civil Affairs to uniformed and undercover police—chatting among themselves.
And we, the occupiers, both sitting on the ground and standing around nearby, dived easily into what we do best here at our home base, but now in front of “Occupy Brutality”: draw ourselves closer to each other, through dialogue, stories, sharing, and listening. The sit-in turned into part teach-in, part general assembly, part brainstorm concerning both how to decrease police brutality and our to increase our own sense of “safety” without police.
“Mic check!” proclaimed one occupier cheerfully from their spot on the ground. “Mic check!” came the exuberant response from forty voices. Person after person began to express their thoughts. “How has heard of COINTELPRO?” one person asked, and when only a couple hands went up, they set up doing a mini-workshop on the history of police trying to surveil, infilitrate, and destroy movements. Someone added a specific example: the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, assassinated in his bed by police during a raid. Others talked about how some police, as people, are good, but the system of policing as a whole isn’t.
“We’re here in solidarity with the national day against police brutality. From Wall Street to Main Street, the system is dysfunctional,” explained one person.
A megaphone appeared, and chants like “It’s Our Reality; Fuck Police Brutality!” punctuated the conversation, which spanned everything from personal experiences of police brutality here in Philly, to explanations of Copwatch and ideas about a “rate my neighborhood cop” Web site, to discussions about tactics and statistics about imprisonment, to visioning about a world without police that feels safer, to quick “know your rights” training and discussions of how police informants work—are working—within movements such as ours. And as if to offer us a role-play, a guy (provocateur, cop, or just someone who didn’t quite get it) tried to disrupt the dialogue with divisive slurs, and we talked about and then acted on how to handle such people.
Many of those sitting on the ground, risking potential arrest, were fairly new to such protest situations. For instance, a woman who just two weeks ago at our occupation was standing up for police and how nice they are, now eagerly added facts about police brutality. Another woman, who had joined the first unpermitted march of our occupation, an anti-Columbus Day protest, and had asked why we didn’t accept help from the police, now talked about how at her school, counselors taught mediation techniques as possible alternatives to bringing police into conflicts.
During this lively collective conversation, Captain William Fisher, commander of the Philadelphia Police Civil Affairs Unit, dressed in blue jeans, wandered over to the circle of occupiers-now-blockaders sitting on the pavement, and in a barely audible tone, said, “Anyone here wanna get locked up? Anyone here don’t want to get locked up?” He was met with, “It’s not about getting locked up; it’s about making a statement.” He repeated himself a few times, and then started to wander away, an occupier urged the people on the ground to lock themselves up: to link arms. This occupier, more experienced than most, went over and explained how to best link up and protect each other, when or if the police moved in. Another of us put in a call to legal, to explain the ramifications of holding ground here, while a third occupier advised that next time folks do a nonpermitted march or action, call legal ahead of time.
Pressure grew quickly for people to stay seated on the ground or join in, while another occupier cautioned each person on the ground to decide for themselves about whether they wanted to risk arrest. An informal decision-making circle ensued, with people turning to the directly democratic tools they’ve been learning to settle on what to do next. The eight to ten folks who decided to stay linked and seated on the ground were quickly offered numerous forms of support: we wrote down their names, birthdates, and contact info, if they wanted to give it, so we could help them if arrested; we brought them water, and our food working group packed up a bin of healthy eats like hummus, carrots, and bread, biking over to the sit-down; some of us offered to take cell phones for safekeeping, and lit cigarettes for those on the ground who needed a smoke.
And then people waited. The police waited. People chanted, sang, cheered, told more stories. The police stood by silently. Our media rushed back to the occupation media tent, to upload pictures, videos, and write stories; the mainstream media at the Roundhouse stood next to the cops, cameras by their side, only reluctantly finally agreeing to talk to the occupiers. And still they wait. It’s now nearly 10:30 p.m. Rumors flew every half hour or so back at our base camp, about imminent arrests, so various crews of us rushed back to 8th Street. But the waiting game continues. Or rather, the police’s waiting game—playing good cop, for the moment, and trying to wait out this evening, this occupation, this movement, hoping it will die of its own accord, from boredom or cold or infighting (spurred, I might add, by what seem like a handful or less of provocateurs or provocateur wannabees.)
This just in, as I finish up this blog post: an eyewitness report back from Rainbow, who is with our occupation Safety Working Group. He headed back from Roundhouse to the Occupy Philly media tent to report that the police have backed off. The sit-in has now turned into a strike line. He said, to paraphrase: “We are striking. We are holding the line. And we are coming up with demands, decided on by consensus by the group down at the sit-in-now-strike. The demands will come out in a few minutes. One of the demands is about the repeal of the curfew law. Another is about ending stop and frisk. Another is an end to racial and other profiling in relation to people on street corners as drug dealers, activists as criminals, youths as flash mobs. For the cops to be equally accountable as we the people are–that they can get called on the same things we can get called on. Everybody down at Roundhouse has stated that they are staying there until they are arrested. There about fifteen to seventeen willing to risk arrest. At the very least, this will go on all night, and maybe until Monday, when the police will have to open up the street and school on the street. There are about forty supporters on hand too. The police are standing around; they closed the entrance to the police station parking lot; it’s taped and coned off. The thirty strike force cops left; they were eating pizza, finished eating it, and left. The mainstream media, and did a report tonight (channel 3 and 6?), showing that the police closed off the street, rather than the occupiers doing it.”
Another eyewitness added, “This was a completely organic direct action, put together starting at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon, with thirteen original direct actionistas. I was one of them. I think it’s important to do this because everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions. No separation between classes of people. What’s right is right, and there needs to be something done about all the injustices going on, and nobody’s stepping up to the plate to do something about it.”
While the police watch us tonight, we, the occupiers, are busy doing direct democracy, the highest form of direct action. As the direct actionista above told me, they came up with this long list of demands, which they plan to release later this evening, while sitting on the ground. Talking, proposing demands, debating them, agreeing on them together, and deciding to stay put until the demands are met—demands that relate to the lived experiences of suffering under this police system. The thirteen direct actionistas did what we’re all doing here at our occupation: taking our demand of self-organization seriously, utilizing their newfound forms of deciding this new world for ourselves, this afternoon and through this evening—perhaps through the weekend—and linking it to their newfound knowledge, for many of them, that policing as an institution is by its very character brutal, to act out of solidarity, to demand what we know is possible: a world in which we can work things out in far more humane, caring, and egalitarian ways than the brute force of police forces.
p.s. This was a remarkable day at Occupy Philly, or as one of my new friends and co-occupiers Amanda just said, “This was a fucking amazing day!” Starting with a rousing and raucous “funk the banks” demo/direct action, followed by my first live radio show hosting, thanks to mentorship and cohosting by Vanessa Maria, during which we talked about the commons we’re creating here at our occupation, then broadcast from the best teach-in and participatory workshop I’ve gone to here so far, called Private, Public, Commons (pictured above: me, on the right, at the astonishingly imaginative exercise in group visioning of a world held in common), which included a people’s “city planning” brainstorm about how we’d collectively transform transit, rec centers, libraries, schools, and vacant land, and then off to this spontaneous and most direct of direct actions so far at Occupy Philly at the Roundhouse, and ending–but not quite yet–with all the good conversations in our now-functional media tent, in which I’m learning that all of us can learn, change, and become more deeply dedicated to this commune commons by the minute. I hope to write up a bunch more thoughts for today. But for now, live and unmediated from Occupy Philly, the above is my dispatch for this Saturday night amid the lovely chaos of the DIY media tent with live hip-hip music wafting in our tent flap.
I’ll end with an anecdote. Today was one of those days, rare as a four-leaf clover, when everything seems possible because everyone’s changing for the better so quickly. I nearly cried at so many points this October 22, not quite knowing where to put the joy of watching, of participating in, the unfolding of what just might be the first inklings of a commons overcoming capitalism, if only temporarily, here in our occupied square. As one of my media comrades explained to me about a half hour ago, after returning from the Roundhouse strike, he’d called his dad to say he was going to be on the news, and his dad said, “Don’t get mixed up with those people.” “Dad, I am one of those people.” Just over a week ago, he told me that he was only doing technical stuff at Occupy Philly and not getting involved in politics, but remarked, tonight, that when his dad or others ask, “What are you doing?” he now replies, “We don’t know. And that’s OK. Nobody knows. This may end in a week. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll be the people who change the world.”
(Photos by Dave Onion, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multilectical/page2/)