Yesterday's arrest of 15 people identifying as Occupy Philly participants who staged a 17-hour protest in front of police headquarters, blocking 8th near Race Street to traffic overnight, has left many asking why?
Police have so far been cooperative and even sympathetic with the movement, walking with protesters during marches, watching from the sidelines during protests and generally practicing a hands-off policy when it comes to Occupy Philly's exercise of first amendment rights.
And protesters have been reciprocal towards police, deeming them part of the 99 percent, informing them of their direct actions ahead of time and, for the most part, treating them with respect.
So what happened?
"When they put on that
badge and gun, they are doing the work of the one percent," said one organizer who helped coordinate the action Saturday into yesterday. Though it was not sanctioned by Occupy Philly's general assembly, the movement provided supplies and support to the protesters through the night. "When they put
on that badge and gun, they are no longer our friends – they may not be
our enemies, but they are no longer our friends."
He said that protesters were marching in solidarity with the 16th annual October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation and originally had no plans to conduct a sit-in, which "evolved organically."
"We marched and were sitting down having a discussion about police brutality and problems with the system," said the organizer. "[A police captain] walked over and said, 'Hey, you wanna get arrested? Because if you keep sitting there, you’re gonna get arrested.' We kind of looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, let's keep sitting here.'"
"It’s a small group of folks that wanted media attention and went there with the purpose to get arrested," said City Managing Director Rich Negrin yesterday. "They wanted to make a statement." He added that police offered to help the protesters move to a nearby sidewalk where they would still be visible and, leading up the arrests, gave them three warnings in 20 minutes.
But the organizer insisted that there was no predetermined agenda save the ideals and demands released in a letter yesterday morning. "We did not go there with the intention of being arrested," he said. "The Philadelphia Police Department has a notorious history for police brutality and, not only that, the Philadelphia Police Department is one of the most notorious corrupt police departments."
"I’m disappointed," Negrin said. "I think, up until today, Philadelphia has done fantastic job on both sides making sure these folks were able to demonstrate and exercise their first amendment free speech rights without being unlawful. And today, they were unlawful."
Negrin said that protesters hurled taunts and insults at police, which the organizer denies, though he admits to bringing donuts to offer to officers. "I am so proud of the police's training and professionalism because it's not an easy thing to have
folks antagonizing you, blocking your entrance and calling you names.
That can antagonize the best of us and the police officers out there reacted
incredibly professionally and peacefully," Negrin said.
Protesters were arrested without incident, charged with obstructing a highway and released around 2 a.m. on their own recognizance.
"Regardless of how well authorities are working with us – and we all have our
own opinions – it’s more of a PR gimmick," the organizer said, who
believes that after municipal elections on Nov. 8, the city and police
will be much less accommodating to Occupiers.
But Negrin pointed to the public safety hazards of blocking traffic as a bottom line, saying the street is a major artery and first responders answering 911 calls may face life-or-death delays. "It makes that area less safe for people."
"There's got to be a way to exercise free speech without inconveniencing people going to work or jeopardizing public safety," he said. "I don’t think it’s a positive thing when a movement about economic justice starts to focus on police and becomes something else when police here have behaved so professionally."