Clusterphuck in Philadelphia

(note–I’ve made changes this afternoon 7/2 after seeing live feed. Not nearly as discouraged as I was when drafting this on Saturday)

If you read my last post, you know that I had a whole raft of events going on over the weekend. I was on WBCR to talk about my plays and about the Occupy Movement (I’ll put up a link to the Podcast today). And I was to perform live Friday and Saturday. Friday’s gig at Yippie wasn’t what it could have been–there is no A/C in the building owing to renovations, and even the locals had cleared out. So that leaves Philadelphia and the Occupy National Gathering, where I was supposed to perform at 8 PM.

Didn’t happen.

So here’s what DID happen. I arrived at 5th and Market Street a few minutes after 4 PM on Saturday. The atmosphere was already full of foreboding–I’ve been participating in street demonstrations for some 20 years with all kinds of organizations, and the Philadelphia Police and the Parks Police seemed especially amped up. There was one tent/kiosk on the mall, a project for Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans against the War. Anyone coming into town bearing a backpack was kept off the mall on the grounds that there was ‘no bedding allowed’. And there wasn’t much of a critical mass of protesters–maybe 150 or so. When we stepped off at 6 to demonstrate against local villains, that number had swelled somewhat, but this didn’t look or feel like a large-scale national event.

The demonstration ended us up in Washington Square Park. So… were those of us in from out of town staying there? We sat for awhile with lots of police in riot gear observing. And then it happened–folks from Occupy set up a pup-tent, the park police came in, backed up by Philly cops with plexiglass shields and body armor. I saw riot batons go up in the air (though I didn’t see the blows falling) and there were suddenly a few stray globs of pepper-spray flying into the crowd. After the cops had dragged away the tent protesters, they began a methodical sweep of the park, knocking over people engaged in the crime of sitting on the grass. And then they formed a blockade which kept a lot of people separated from their belongings. It looked like they were surrounding the gates of the park, and the beleaguered folks had an impromptu people’s mic where they tried to sort out where people would be sleeping (the choices seemed to be on sidewalks lined up sideways or in the parking lot of a local church).

This was not a crowd up for a rousing theater performance. And it was pretty clear that there were no guarantees that protesters wouldn’t be harassed on the streets as well. I felt really guilty, but I wasn’t ready to stretch out on a sidewalk and risk some stupid arrest and court date. I booked.

Later, as I attempted to get an early bus out of Philly, I saw some of the people from the demonstration attempting to use the bathroom in the Greyhound station. Not long after they left, Greyhound put burly security types in front of both bathrooms.  Not feeling the Brotherly Love, guys.

And from what I’ve gotten via FB and twitter, it’s clear the harassment has continued–Sunday AM there was a posting that all teach-ins and conferences had been moved to another location (the Philly Gathering maps all laid out space within the parks, but those had been closed off to the demonstrators). Late in the afternoon, Occupy Marines posted that the site had run out of water and Mayor Nutter had forbade the fire department from bringing any. In 90+ degree heat that seems a recipe for serious medical problems.

Some thoughts:

* There is something daring and poetic and ballsy about the whole concept of having an Occupy Gathering in Philadelphia during the week that Philadelphia becomes the Iconic American city for the celebration of Independence. But my first thought upon getting there on Saturday was there just weren’t enough bodies to pull it off, at least on Saturday. And (larger point) it should have been understood by the organizers that the Empire is in no mood to let Occupy get quality pictures of themselves in Philadelphia on July 4. I’m sure DHS wanted to make certain of that, and it was pretty obvious on Saturday that the Park Service guys had been practicing with riot drilling. We’ll see as the week progresses whether the protesters can get back the upper hand.

Not for nothing, but where was the Saturday /Plan B? Activists sleeping on the streets is NOT a plan B, especially in a police environment where the cops clearly have their orders. There’s all this romance tied up in the Zuccotti/Liberty stakeout, but I looked at the beautiful brochure created for the Gathering, and the planning seems to be based on a bunch of assumptions that may not have been realistic.

* No media on Saturday. No MSM that I saw in my few hours there, and no media fill since. Amy Goodman doesn’t count. Pictures of Occupy people getting clubbed around are (sadly) ho-hum after last fall. And it’s clear that no one is paying attention to street demos anymore. Which feeds into:

* No critical mass. All the chirpiest of media talking heads are making happy talk about the state of the nation right now. But the economy is still in the toilet, the 1% have had their best years ever under Obama, and all the productivity gains resulting in better bottom lines have not made the working men and women responsible for those gains any better off. We are being lied to. If we counted joblessness as we did under Jimmy Carter, it would be at 17%. If we counted inflation as we did before Nixon’s Core Inflation scam and the Clinton Boskin Commission, it would be at 4-6% per year for most of the last decade. SO WHY ARE MOST OF THE 99% SITTING AT HOME? Are we of the Activist community too busy talking to each other and not getting out and making the case to other people? Occupy activists–please turn off your Internets machines and talk to your neighbors! And not just your cool, with-it neighbors–the folks watching Fox aren’t so happy either. The thing that almost no person I’ve talked to can disagree with is that the status quo is horrible. And after a few more moments of conversation, it usually becomes clear that the two parties can’t fix it.

In Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE, the title character derides the whole idea of generals looking for young men who want to be heroes. She argues that heroes are needed because the Generals don’t plan properly–and if there were enough people to do their duty, heroes might be unnecessary. Occupy has heroes already. It needs lots of other people (heroic or not) to stay viable.

Want me to come perform? Maybe get a few more people at your demo? You know where to find me.

UPDATE: Okay, lesson learned. It’s 530 PM and I’m looking at a livestream of a protest march in Philly right now, and it’s big and enthusiastic and it’s clear the cops aren’t able to herd them around–they’ve hooked up with Verizon workers. Big Occupy Banner at the front. Wahoo!

OTOH, there are some 27 arrests so far.

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