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What I saw at Occupy Philly

Occupy Philly: Oct 9, 2011 from Joel Mathis on Vimeo.


The Occupy Philly movement, as far as I can tell from my visit today, is dominated by neither fringe conspiracists nor the middle-class mainstream. Mostly, it seems to be made up of plucky twentysomethings who seem to have expected that the world they grew up in—the go-go 1990s and the "go shopping in the face of disaster" aughties—was the world they would inherit, and are cranky they didn't.

Yes, there were Marxists and Socialists and anarchists scattered among the crowd. But the tired "dirty, smelly hippie" stereotype doesn't fit what I found. Much of the crowd was, to all appearances, Standard Urban Hipster—not exactly suburbanites, exactly, but not nearly so outrĂ© as to alienate the masses either.

What it did seem to be, in fact, is a movement of privilege. The protesters were overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly literate—and Philadelphia, for all its greatness, isn't really either. Most of the faces of color on Dilworth Plaza belonged, frankly, to homeless panhandlers who were sleeping there long before all the kids with liberal arts degrees showed up. Why not more minority participation? It could be that a big chunk of Philadelphia's population has gotten the short end of the stick for so long that the current crisis doesn't seem like that much of a crisis—only more of the same. The people who are protesting who the ones who had something to lose in the first place, and lost it.

For all that, there wasn't a lot of rage to be found at City Hall either. The spirit, in fact, seemed to be upbeat. Some protesters were helping gather and distribute food. There was a library set up, as well as an area for wi-fi use and tech support. One area was designated for a solar-powered battery to charge up; volunteers collected litter. There was even a stickball game on the north side. Speakers reminded the crowd that the plaza, for now, is their home—and to treat it as such. But far from the air of petulant, hypocritical entitlement that some media reports had led me to expect, what I found was a bunch of young people in the act of building—in miniature—the kind of society that they seek. That's nothing to scoff at.

Not that there weren't eye-rolling moments. One speaker exhorted protesters to use the readily available public toilets. "Please do not pee on your neighbors," he pleaded—apparently because that had already happened. A young woman took the mic and introduced her boyfriend, a young man who is on a hunger strike "until he gets some answers from Wall Street, or until medical professionals tell him to quit" the hunger strike.

Despite the crankiness at Wall Street—well-represented in the signs I photographed for the video above—I didn't see a ton of radicalism. Again, yes, the Marxists and the Socialists. But the angriest-sounding speaker inveighed heavily against corporate CEOs and their multimillion-dollar compensation packages—but added he didn't want to take those away: He just wants to ensure that everybody else can get by, too. Not exactly "when the revolution comes, you'll be first against the wall" stuff.

I do not know what Occupy Wall Street and all the related protests will become. Maybe they'll peter out. Maybe the fringe radicals will come to dominate. But that isn't what is happening right now. Right now, regular folks—young, smart, educated folks to be sure, but not weirdoes—are frustrated because they don't see a way to claim their piece of the American dream. And yeah: That should make the Top 1 percent very nervous.

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