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July 06, 2012

The Occupy National Gathering’s Independence Day March

Posted in: Occupy

On the night of the Fourth of July, occupiers gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Occupy National Gathering planned for ending their five-day event with a march to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where they could hear a concert put on by the musical group The Roots and watch fireworks. A march of at least five hundred people left Franklin Square in Philadelphia and headed toward where residents of the city were gathered for the holiday’s festivities.

The police let people march down the middle of a street that ran parallel to Market Street, a main thoroughfare through the city that runs right through the city’s Independence Mall. The police and occupiers were being cool with one another. Then, a white-shirted officer and a lead organizer for the National Gathering, Larry, went back and forth with one another at the front of the march. The air quickly became tense as the officer communicated that there was a situation unfolding in Love Park, which the occupiers would have to pass on their way to the concert. Dynamite was thrown – an M-80 or some other kind of firework. Or, a shooting had taken place. Two shootings had taken place. It was all confusing, but something had happened and the white-shirted officer issued an ominous and cautionary warning to Larry that he might want to consider not taking the march to where they planned to end it because women, children and elderly people were in the march. Someone could get hurt.

Larry said this needs to be taken to the group. The occupiers need to be informed. One person, who may have been a livestreamer, said after the white-shirted officer made the warning that this would be on the news. Whatever happened would be seen by many. Few were willing to take the police seriously and thought they were making something up about fireworks or shootings so they could divert the march and not let occupiers go where they wanted.

Chaos erupted. Apparently, an ambulance was coming through to get to the scene of the shooting. Organizers started shouting to the entire march to move out of the street. The police were making gestures to move as well but no force was being used. A number of people would not get out of the street. They thought this might be some trick to divide the march up, get it out of the street. They remembered previous marches with the New York Police Department or other police departments, where they had been denied the ability to proceed with a march for bogus reasons.

Paranoia and distrust now filled the air. The march continued onward and ended up on Market Street. It proceeded toward Broad St to John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Right by the entrance to Love Park, at 15th & JFK, a line of bike police had formed a barricade. The occupiers were not going to be proceeding any further. Arrests were also increasingly possible.

Occupiers made a spur of the moment decision to leave the street and go up the steps to a plaza area outside of the city’s main municipal building. None of the Philadelphia police had secured these steps so occupiers could get through. Some of the occupiers got around the barricade by going down these steps and on to the sidewalk. They were eventually separated, however, as police swooped in with bicycles to stop people from going down the steps. Police also unholstered their batons and began to make lines on the sidewalk.

Nobody in Occupy really knew where to go from here. However, they did have a bit of security. Many residents of the city who were not part of the march had been sitting up on this plaza area. The police could detain this mass group of people for “unlawful assembly,” but they would end up arresting people who had not been part of the march that tried to outmaneuver police. Occupiers had the cover to do a mic check and find a way to end this closing march.

As the occupiers discussed what to do next, while they chanted and mic checked near the city building, a police surveillance team that had been following occupiers around all week with at least two or three antiquated and bulky professional video cameras stood on the deck recording occupiers. A member of the team also decided to harass a member of the press by pointing the camera directly at this videographer, who began to shout, “The Philadelphia police are harassing the press!”

The crowd of occupiers thinned. Police had told them they could leave in small groups. They could get to the concert but past a certain area they could not have signs. (One occupier ended up being arrested for having a sign, this one of two arrests during the night.)

A shooting did happen. According to a local NBC News report, police “shot a teen in the chest after they witnessed him allegedly shooting another teen just blocks from the Welcome America Concert on July 4th.” They “returned fire on the teen around 9:20 p.m. after the 16-year-old shot a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old in the leg near 17th and JFK in Center City.”

There actually were a total of six shootings during the night. A civil affairs officer named Officer Glenn, who has a rapport with Philadelphia occupiers, said the night was the most heavily policed in Philadelphia history.

The police feared that occupiers would go to the concert and disrupt it with protest. They did not seem to think that occupiers like music too and might want to just enjoy the festivities like Philadelphia residents. On the other hand, the way the Occupy movement responded to the suggestion that they could not proceed because a shooting happened reveals the effect of authoritarian repression against the Occupy movement throughout the country throughout the past months. The memory of what the police and/or surveillance state has done to Occupy had many paranoid about having their rights violated and being denied the ability to go where they wanted to march.

The Occupy movement’s evolution brought them to this past week, where they were engaged in participatory democracy—the development of a vision to move forward. It demonstrated how Occupy has to overcome external factors, such as record heat and shootings, to be able to organize, because both of those factors appeared to undermine the effectiveness of the National Gathering at certain points. It also, as @er0tikka recently tweeted, needs a “cohesive way to generate or critique” the movement’s “internal culture effectively.”


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