The Occupy Wall Street movement returned in full force to Philadelphia this week for its first national gathering, which included five days of workshops, speakers and marches.
The event drew hundreds of Occupy members from all over the country, as well as 107 endorsements from other Occupy groups, according to Occupy National Gathering organizer Steve Cottrell.
The summer convention was intended to “strengthen [Occupy’s] ability to work together,” according to organizer Tammy Shapiro.
It was also a reaction to another group’s national convention. The 99% Declaration, a group inspired by Occupy Wall Street, also held a national meeting in Philadelphia Monday through Wednesday. In what they called a “Continental Congress 2.0,” about 90 delegates from across the United States convened to draft a list of grievances. The list will be sent to politicians and members of the Supreme Court, and then will be used as a framework to sue the federal government.
Organizers of the Occupy National Gathering had trouble finding places to settle in for the week. On Saturday, the protesters were in front of Independence Mall, part of the Independence National Historical Park on 6th and Market streets. But Saturday evening, an Occupier was arrested after setting up a tent at 5th and Walnut streets. The next day, the group moved to Franklin Square in order to avoid more disruptions.
Some attendees were disappointed by the new location. Chas Schaeffer, a member of Occupy Pittsburgh, felt the Franklin Square location was less prominent compared to Independence Mall. “We missed a big opportunity last night,” he said. “We missed it because we were doing civil disobedience.”
On Sunday evening, a solidarity march for the person arrested resulted in 26 arrests on charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of highways. The people arrested were all released on Monday.
One of the goals of the convention was to “to see what we agree on,” Shapiro said. Other Occupiers said this was an opportunity to network and meet other Occupiers in person.
But many were expecting a larger gathering. Shapiro was hoping to see 1,500 people throughout the week. Roughly 500 people came.
Those who did make the trip to Philadelphia were often organizers of their Occupy movement at home. “This isn’t necessarily a gathering for all Occupiers,” explained Foo Conner, who helped plan the initial Occupy Wall Street movement on the internet. Although everyone was invited, he said, the gathering was “more for organizers and hardcore radicals.”
To great applause, one prominent speaker, journalist Chris Hedges, described the Occupy movement as “the dress rehearsal for the end of the Corporate State.” Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi called for putting corporate criminals in jail and deplored the high cost of education, which is “pegged to the availability of student credit.”
While 99D addressed similar issues in its convention, there was tension between the two groups. Initially, 99D planned its convention without asking for Occupy Philadelphia’s support. This was “a little disturbing to people from Occupy Philly,” Cottrell said, adding that 99D was portrayed in the media as an Occupy group. Occupy Philadelphia then decided to have its own national gathering.
But the two groups bridged their differences when Zevin Cruz, a delegate who had been a member of Occupy New York and Occupy Ithaca, led a delegation to approach Occupy and “get their input.”
Larry Swetman, an Occupy Philadelphia organizer who had previously criticized 99D for a lack of transparency, said he appreciated the gesture. He said the two groups are no longer in disagreement. “We don’t have to fight,” he added.
Brendan Von Gorder, a rising College sophomore who attended the gathering, is hopeful for the future of activism. Though the convention “didn’t draw as many people as it should have,” he said, “the spirit of Occupy I am confident will live on.”