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The Two Faces of Occupy Philly

November 25, 2011

This was an assignment for my journalism class. I liked the final product, so here it is:

The tops of Philadelphia’s very tallest buildings are shrouded in fog, but City Hall sits beneath that, crowned with a yellow grandfather clock that reads nine in an ancient numeric code and higher still a statue of a very important dead man. Gathered near a rough wooden platform outside the western face of the building are around fifty people—mostly young, dressed comfortably and for warmth, perhaps in anticipation of a chillier autumn night than this, perhaps in anticipation of more nights, colder still. From a distance it seems like they are chanting.

They are not. Individuals who must have been group leaders previously read aloud off index cards some concerns about the expansion of the Occupy Philly protest to nearby Thomas Paine plaza. After every sentence or so they pause, and a few people repeat what was said in whoops and shouts, for everyone who may have not heard the first time. Sometimes, if a particular point is well-received, people raise their arms in the air and wiggle their fingers—jazz hands, the silent and unobtrusive way to approve.

The deliberation is careful; after the group leaders report back the fruits of earlier discussions, the facilitator—a young, tall, pale man and the only operator of a microphone present—opens up the floor to anyone who may have new concerns. A middle-aged, scraggly man in a wheelchair wonders if the new location is wheelchair accessible or supplied with enough water and electricity.

This man is Joe McGraw, 41, and he has been occupying Philadelphia since the very beginning, when he says there were only 17 people. His tent is on the outskirts of the site, on the northern side, closer to two cops positioned fifty feet away from the barrier than the rest of the tents, around the corner of the building, many of which are lined up precisely next to each other the way a neat freak might arrange adjacent houses in the board game Monopoly.

Not all spaces are like this. There is one row of tents that have the luxury of space; one residence even has a small pink satellite tent, big enough for a toddler. Along this row, in between the apparent homeless who sit wordlessly alone or in pairs, a small lime-green car, a playhouse, and a two-foot tall red slide can be found, suggesting the presence of at least one family of homeless.

***

McGraw wears a dark sweater and sweatpants and a brown-and-green sneaker. His wedding band is beefy and silver and still on his finger despite the fact that he and his wife broke up. He lost his leg in a fire and wouldn’t go into specifics.

To him, the movement is essentially about love and trust.

“This,” McGraw says, motioning with both hands toward the rest of the protest site (his hands move constantly when he speaks), “is a family. It’s trust in one another.”

The government he does not trust. He rambles against their power: the databases of information they have on citizens, the surveillance technology they use, the arbitrary and profitable distinction they make between legal and illegal drugs, and so on.

Still, his focus is simple: “get proper schooling for the kids and healthcare for everybody.” He is proud of the movement’s growth, and marvels at the atmosphere.

“You don’t see people loving and hanging out [like this],” he says.

Indeed, many people are out in the open, in large groups. Many drink and smoke (be it tobacco, weed, or even hookah): these people are young and removed from the politicized discussion happening in the center.

***

Back at the meeting, the facilitator gets flustered: someone proposed a straw poll to vote on whether the straw poll concerning the expansion should be taken right now. The facilitator concedes, and Straw Poll 1 rather easily results in favor of having Straw Poll 2 right now. The second straw poll is closer, so that two aides walk around tapping the people who have their arms raised, who then lower them.

The vote counters move quietly through the crowd, much like a seemingly homeless man in dark camouflage maneuvers near the back, asking in hushed tones to whoever will acknowledge him if he, a veteran by the way, can get some change for a hamburger.

“No, I can’t,” one woman says after he asks her twice. “Please, I’m trying to hear. I’m in a meeting.”

The man slinks off much as he entered, like a wraith. No one watches as he walks toward the dark outlying parts of the site. The vote counters reconvene behind the platform, tallying their totals in a pocket notebook.

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One Comment
  1. Molls Balls permalink

    Hey, you, I reread your piece. The writing is very well constructed and I love the imagery that you evoke. I like your interview choice, not that I know much about journalism, and I can see your personality in the writing, which is cool. Okay, I am done sounding like a weird English professor.

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