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Occupying In The Shadow Of Frank Rizzo

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The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments, who consider this ignorance, not without good reason, as one of the essential conditions of their own power.

 

-Mikhail Bakunin

It was 10:30 pm on Dilworth Plaza, the concrete apron around Philadelphia City Hall that's home for over 100 tents in the Occupy Philadelphia movement. The air was clear and the temperature was pleasant.

Occupiers collected in clusters, talking, some smoking and drinking out of cups. A tall, good-natured African American man performed a spoken-word dance routine before an audience of 15 people. People were still tabling the Information Tent and some were inside the Media Tent doing official Occupation work. There was not a cop in sight.

"We need to march in solidarity with the people of Oakland!" a young woman announced using a microphone. She referred to the war-zone-style police assault [1] on the Occupy Oakland encampment the night before, where an Iraq veteran member of Veterans For Peace had been shot in the head by a police projectile; he was still unconscious and in critical condition in an Oakland hospital.

A crowd began to congregate around the young woman with the mike, some taking the mike to express their outrage over the police assault in Oakland. Someone mentioned Atlanta, where the same night police had cleared occupiers [2] from a city park, arresting 53 people. The plan was to march around City Hall.

The street was empty as they took off and began to holler, "Whose street? Our Street!" Someone had made a crude sign mentioning Oakland. On the south side of City Hall, I noticed a uniformed policeman heading the other way at a brisk walk, as if he didn't want to deal with these people. Hey, let "em have the damn street! A lone taxi drove by, and its immigrant driver honked enthusiastically. The marchers waved back.


Occupiers, Frank Rizzo and the Philly occupation across the street by John Grant

When they got to the north side of City Hall, the group marched across the street onto the plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building, ending up at the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo [3], an Italian beat cop who became police commissioner and then mayor. He was famous for going to his mayoral inauguration with a nightstick in the cummerbund of his tuxedo. Rizzo enjoyed telling people how much he admired an Italian police tactic known as spacco il capo -- "break their heads." He was notorious during the insurgent sixties and seventies for saying he was going to clear out the city in such a way to "make Attila the Hun look like a f*ggot." Leading some police operation in one of the neighborhoods in the 1970s, he told an acquaintance of mine who expressed some concern about the brutal action to shut up and get off his porch, "Or I'll come up there and break your back."

The marchers clustered at the base of the statue of Rizzo extending his right arm. Depending on one's point of view, Rizzo is either making a warm, paternal gesture or he's giving a limp parody of the Nazi salute.

During a 45 minute discussion under the statue, a marcher pointed to the occupation tents across the street at City Hall and said angrily, "We're only there because the police let us stay there." Of course, he was right. While the Philadelphia Police Department and its Civil Affairs Unit have so far been respectful, it's ultimately the decision of the mayor and his police commissioner whether they remain, a decision based on public pressure coming from two polarized political directions. There's also the desire to avoid a public relations nightmare like the one that occurred in Oakland.

Dancing With the Mayor and the Police

After the police assault, Oakland Mayor Jean Quon -- a former civil rights activist -- publicly apologized for the police action. Over 1000 people, then, re-entered Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and are camped there now. There seems to be a rift between the mayor and her police leadership, with the mayor trying to make up for the assault while the police sulk and agonize.

"I think we're in trouble. We've been placating these people so long that they don't take us seriously," one Oakland officer told The Bay Citizen newspaper. "If you run this red light 10 times and I'm sitting there and on the 11th time I give you a ticket, you're going to say, you've been watching me this whole time and today you've decided to do something about it?"

This Oakland cop doesn't seem to get it that one of the most glaring realities in America is the selective enforcement of the many laws on the books. And it's cops who have the power to exercize much of that discretion. In fact, one can argue much of the financial debacle and the endless wars infuriating so many Americans (especially those in the various Occupations) is about selectively not enforcing the Constitution and other laws against the top tier of American citizenry.

Like Oakland, Philadelphia has allowed the occupation to settle in. At the same time, it's a city with a history of notoriously brutal and/or un-constitutional police action. First there's the brutality of the Rizzo years; then, following the 2000 Republican convention, the City of Philadelphia paid out millions in lawsuit fines for Constitutional abuses such as pre-emptive mass arrests based on suspicion or bogus "intelligence" and just snatching people off the street for no justifiable reason.

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
 

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