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What Would William Penn Do?

What Would William Penn Do?
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Editor’s note: This post is part of our #NatGat coverage. You may read more #NatGat-related stories here.

Philadelphia, PA–I’ve done the All in the Red casseroles marches weekly in New York and was curious to see what it would be like in a different city. Arriving to the Occupy National Gathering in Philadelphia on Sunday, this was my first march as part of the National Gathering, and my first ever protest in Philadelphia, and I was unsure of what to expect but mostly optimistic and excited. It would be interesting to participate in a march that (as far as I knew in the United States) was only happening on a regular basis in my home city, but this time in a new place with a group of unfamiliar people.

Shortly after we began, there was a split between those who wanted to take the streets and those who did not. I recognized those who organized and were pacing the march were from New York; where we’re from, taking the streets is a risk in which you may be arrested immediately for setting one foot in the road. But the cops here cruised on their bicycles, letting us move freely. The pacers responded by mic checking that they supported autonomous action but were not recommending or suggesting we walk in the street. But once it seemed as though the police truly did not care, they and most of the march poured into the street.

Because many of us are from different cities, and therefore have varying experiences with different police forces, everyone seemed to react differently to the authorities. I was not in Philadelphia the day before, so I had no previous experience with the Philadelphia Police Department and could only go by their indifference to our taking the street, and felt that the police were being very permissive and respectful. But a few people taunted the police while others yelled at comrades in the streets things like “Good luck getting arrested!” Few of us from out of town anticipated the police’s leniency, and I probably wasn’t the only one who wondered how long this would last.

The bulk of the march was spent walking east on Market Street. I had been here before a few times years ago, going across the river to Philadelphia for concerts in my teen years, but the new context made the place seem rather alien. The last time I visited here was before I moved to New York, and today the city seemed desolate and devoid of people—but here on Market Street, people stopped, stood and watched us.

We approached Penn’s Landing, and many of us out-of-towners weren’t quite sure where the bridge led to. We took the bridge, and when we made it half-way across we circled around and came back. “We shouldn’t have turned around,” I heard someone say behind me. “Why don’t we cross to the other side?” A few steps after our turn-around we stopped again with a mic check from a pacer: apparently, we were originally meant to cross the bridge but the front of the march had come upon a wall of cops on the other side. Not wanting to start conflict with them, those in front decided to turn around and walk back. But some protesters took issue with this and wanted to face the cops. Would we continue on this new path, off the bridge on the side we entered, or confront the police?

Opinions divided, and the march did as well. I followed the group that went back towards the police, but there was no clear strategy as to what to do once we met with them. What were we here for? Some said confronting the police was exactly the reason why we had all come together; others said this march was only to educate and raise awareness to the student debt crisis, and that conflicts with the police would only muddy that message and invite criticism we didn’t need. So we ended up doing a lot of standing and sitting on the other end of the bridge in front of the police. I heard one guy gossip that obviously an undercover had suggested that we move back towards the police instead of re-routing; another one was showing rumors that he received on his phone that police re-enforcements were on their way to kettle and arrest us all.

There was slight conflict with civilians when the police opened up space in their wall to allow civilians from a street festival on the other side of the bridge to pass. I wasn’t so close to see what happened—I expect protesters tried to squeeze through—but I heard a lot of yelling as a mother and her kids (and then other civilians, but she was doing the yelling) walked past us looking flustered. One girl said it best: “They see us as an inconvenience, and don’t realize that this inconvenience is a public service.”

We eventually decided to march back to Franklin Square Park. Again, we were divided between those in and out of the street, but the walk back was largely casual, with fewer chants. We made it back with pretty much no conflict, and lots of support from bystanders and drivers.

- Joe Sutton -

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One Response to “What Would William Penn Do?”

  1. Travis Henry says:

    William Penn would’ve offered the idea of coming off the bridge and turning down Market Street to pay our respects to Tammanend, the first Patron Saint of America. We would’ve circled the statue in solidarity with the Lenape People and the American People, and in recognition of our shared, overlapping cultural Homelands. With such a symbolic culmination, we could’ve marched home in satisfaction. But he wasn’t there, and I appreciate the efforts of the march facilitators.

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