In a Media Culture Where Arrests Bring Headlines, Occupy Philly Struggles with Ethics
The blog for a group named the David and Goliath Project recently gave valuable insight into the planning and views of civil-disobedience. Such illegal actions are often seen very differently by the activists engaging in them and the authorities charged with keeping order.
A February 20, 2012 account of such a dilemma was written by Julia Alford-Fowler on the David and Goliath Project’s blog. The post, titled How To Radicalize a Moderate: The Story of a Former OP City Liaison, tells the story of an alleged encounter between she and Philadelphia city officials. According to the Occupier, high-ranking Philadelphia city officials offered Occupy the ability to generate headlines from planned, fake arrests without having the legal consequences of such civil-disobedience.
The Occupier’s account of her Fall 2011 experiences goes as follows:
By 6:00 pm that day, I was sitting in the office of Richard Negrin, Deputy Mayor and Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia. During our conversation he said one thing in particular which struck me as unusual, but in the flurry of activity, I pushed it aside: If we get a few weeks into this and we need to boost publicity for the movement, they could help us stage an arrest.
A top-ranking city official just told me that they would be willing to set up a situation wherein 10 or so people lie down in the street and they would very politely cuff them and haul them away to jail.
In a later meeting with our small team of city liaisons, he repeated this statement and was echoed by Everett Gillison, Deputy Mayor of Public Safety and now Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff. Gillison confirmed this tactic, saying that it was something that they had done in the past and we simply needed to let them know how many people, at what time, and they would work with us to coordinate these arrests.
I should note that we never took the administration up on their offer.
Over the next two weeks I began to see a pattern in which the city was happy to have us there as long as they were able to subtly control our actions. When it came to the permit, the city was anxious for us to sign this piece of paper that would change our camp from a space that was a reclamation of public property for use by and service to the people of Philadelphia, to them granting us permission to be there under their oversight and control. Supposedly open-ended, once signed we could have access to electricity and protection from “other groups” trying to take over the space. At one point, Negrin called to warn me that we should sign immediately because the Tea Party had applied for a permit and they could only hold them off for so long. After checking around, I discovered that no one in the administration could confirm that this was the case. Once the permit was signed, we were given a long list of complaints from the city that we had to fix about the camp, which then dominated three weeks of daily General Assemblies. The pattern continued to build. As soon as we resolved one issue, the city would present us with another one, each of which would dominate endless hours of our time.
In regards to the “city liaison working group”, the General Assembly eventually voted to dissolve the working group and grant the role of communicating with the city on our behalf to the Legal Collective, which I then joined.
After the first and only meeting with the mayor and his staff, the General Assembly decided to answer the Mayor Nutter’s request for weekly meetings with a simple answer: No. We made clear that Occupy Philadelphia did not intend to cut off communication, and that continued emails and letters would be exchanged with the administration. I saw this as our group making the statement that we were going to protest on our terms, not theirs. I believed that as people of the United States, it is our right to do so. The government is supposed to be for the people and by the people. We would no longer tolerate a country in which our government’s voice is more important than that of the people who elected them. Additionally, we were demanding that all communications with the city be documented in order to protect our rights. As any meeting with the city in person was not allowed to be recorded, we refused to participate.
What happens when citizens decide they are no longer going to allow the suppression of their voices by the government? Shortly after we notified the Mayor’s office of our decision, on November 12th, there was a sexual assault at the camp. The following day, Mayor Nutter held a press conference which he used as a platform to attack Occupy Philly.”
The basic ethical question posed by the Occupier is whether or not planning civil-disobedience for the purpose of achieving attention is right or wrong.
I heavily engaged in civil-disobedience in my past days as a left-of-center activist. The New Orleans Police Department once made a similar offer to me in late 2004. I chose to refuse the offer. What’s interesting is a look into my reasoning for refusing.
If I had simply been interested in getting headlines for my political message, as was the case with Jodie Evans and Common Cause in theirplanned and law enforcement orchestrated arrests at the 2011 Koch protests in Rancho Mirage, California, I probably would’ve accepted the offer.
That’s just it though. I, along with my “comrades,” associated the costs and interruption of the city with success as an anarchistic activist. We wanted the headlines for our cause. We also wanted the disruption and costs to the “Government” as a statement on our seriousness and power.
A reading of the Occupier’s entire post indicates that attention to her “cause” isn’t the only motivator in her Occumotives.