“You've Got to be Kidding Right?! - The City of Brotherly Love Reveals its True Face in More Ways than One.”
We gathered in front of The Municipal Building of Philadelphia around 4 pm March 15th 2012 in order to attend a public hearing before the city board of health which was presented as an opportunity for the citizenry of Philadelphia to express their opinions concerning the proposed new law that would make giving away free food in the city of Philadelphia a crime punishable by a $150 fine.
The hearing was scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm. Prior to the start time for the meeting the Occupy Philly working group served a delicious spread of free food in front of the Rank Rizzo statue and several awesome mic checks were made throughout the rally. Approximately a half an hour before that time a phalanx of armed police officers lined up on either side of the entry to the building and we were informed by the head of the Philadelphia Civil Affairs department, via a mic check he had requested* (I will write briefly of that mic check which was met with some controversy at the bottom of the article) that, despite the city having both the multistory municipal building and the worlds largest all masonry building in the world called city hall directly across the street that it was not at all possible for the city to find a room large enough to fit more than 50 people at one time.
Two of those gathered politely approached the authorities to verify that the city had indeed said that in a city of millions of citizens there was not in any way a public meeting space able to hold more than 50 people at one time. They were informed by the highest authority figure present that “we do not make the rules, we only enforce them.” When asked if someone who had been involved in decreeing that no more than 50 members of the public could attend the public hearing due to “size constraints” we were told that there was no ability to communicate with anyone higher up in the chain of command.
After reluctantly but obediently submitting to this seemingly preposterous rule and lining up single file, like kindergarteners, we were then informed that – oh wait – word had come that no more than 40 people would be allowed into the building at a time. Again we were told that there was no way for them to communicate with the people making up these rules apparently on the fly, and obviously receiving these commands via a wireless earpiece. Finally the first 40 people were admitted, one at a time, through a flank on each side of armed police officers, while being videoed close up by the police department as each person passed, into the building. The idea that there is now a database of the faces of each member of the public who had been bold enough to come out to speak their minds felt especially chilling to me as I walked past and my face also closely videotaped in the same manner as everyone else.
Approximately 1 hour later it had become apparent that at least two dozen people had been let out the side door of the building but no new people were being allowed into the “open to the public” meeting in a city administrated building. Upon several of us persistently asking why additional people were not being let in now that most of the former previous citizens had been allowed to exit we were informed that a new arbitrary rule had been communicated to the head of the civil affairs department – only when all 40 of the previous members of the public had completely exited the building would any other citizens of the city be allowed to enter. Everyone had assumed that as one exited one would be allowed in.
At that point a general consensus began to arise among the 150-200 people who had already been waiting outside for what was now well over an hour that the city was making up the rules and that these tactics might be being used simply to create a sense of intimidation and separation and to re-enforce the concept that the police can and will control every aspect of the people's ability to communicate in a public forum with the city's public servants. The right of the people to not only speak to the board of health as a single unified citizenry and also to be able to hear what other members of the public were expressing behind those armed police officers who were refusing to admit the public into a public building for a public hearing seemed baffling.
This is where the people's mic began to be deployed to a greater degree in order for us, who had been denied a common voice, to be able to at least communicate amongst the 200 of us still waiting outside the building. Once it was suggested by one of Philadelphia’s citizens that there was no actual law against the public entering a public building in order to attend a public hearing approximately 12-15 bicycle cops quickly showed up and using their bicycles as a barricade further enforced the blockade in front of the building. The crowd, who, now that the sun was beginning top set, was becoming increasingly chilly and tired of standing in a line, began to become visibly frustrated. The new civil affairs big wig came out and there was a lot of back and forth. He didn't impress me as having nearly the “talent” captain fisher did. He stuck me as more dismissive and aggressive than Fisher has previously been. I hope this is not the new tone he will be bringing to the civil affairs department.
Jacob and I went around to the side door. After trying to briefly speak with the people manning the side door to see if there was also a no entry to the building policy in place there Jacob approached the side door and was very forcefully shoved to the ground by an officer. This would pre-sage Khadijah's later arrest where she and her bicycle were shoved down the steps in front of the main entrance for refusing to be pushed and further down the steps by the bicycle barricade. She was arrested, held for an unusually long amount of time and released earlier today, though she had not been able to be present at a university ceremony to bestow an award upon her.
It was finally announced that the next 40 people would be allowed to enter the hearing. A mic check was done encouraging those especially effected by the new regulations,; the homeless and the people who have been most dedicated to preparing and providing food. A general shuffle in the crowd made room for those who's views had been recognized as the most critical for the city to hear since many had begun to worry that the city might arbitrarily declare that the hearing had gone on too long and that not everyone gathered at the municipal services building would be given time to voice their comments. The rest of us gathered behind those who had moved to the front. Finally we were admitted one by one and then the rest of the public who did not make it in for the second round were left to wait approximately three hours they too were finally later allowed into the hearing room.
A few of us had already been discussing forming a line, linking arms and sitting down in solidarity with those who will be grievously hurt by the new regulations. The experience of waiting outside for an hour and a half had only added to our commitment to make a public show of solidarity but this time we were also intent on highlighting the absurdity of how the entire public hearing process was being forced to unfold under such an oppressive, micromanaged and clearly unprecedented set of circumstances imposed upon us by the city.
We who had agreed to autonomously undertake the sit in inside the building had agreed to allow for as many people as possible to make their comments before we would take any action. When the first member among our group name had been called to be allowed to speak 9 of us arose simultaneously from our chairs, formed a line in front of the board of health members and the public and sat down facing the audience. People were then allowed to continue making their comments as we sat before them. After a few comments Julia's mic checked a moving statement about the onerous regulations being proposed. Then we went back to sitting silently, arms linked. After a few more testimonies had been heard my name was called for comment. I made my comments from my place on the floor.
I stated that the mayor had disrespected the board of health by pre-emptively passing his own ban on the sharing of food in public. That the board of health had disrespected the citizens of the city by requiring us to adhere to their absurd process that left approximately 40 more members of the public outside the municipal services building, in the cold that not only homeless but everyone who cares for them and all oh humanity itself was being profoundly disrespected by the willingness of the city to even propose such preposterously restrictive regulations on the distribution of food to those in the city who depend on it for their daily survival. And finally that, since the public was actively being denied the right to hear what was going on at each “session” of the hearing I would like to know one piece of important information that may have come out of the previous series of comments that we had not been allowed to witness; did any members of the public testify in favor the ban(s), no one from the board of health offered an answer to that question but it was revealed by someone else that only two people at the first part of the hearing had expressed approval and that they were both from the logan square neighborhood association though the city has repeatedly insisted that the sudden urgency of passing these bans was in no way related to the logan square area opening of two new museums and an expected influx of new tourist to that section of the city where many outdoor food distributions have been taking place for decades.
As the comments proceed after my question not one person from the second group that had been allowed into the building expressed anything but shock and disgust concerning the bans. Amy's 12 year old daughter made an amazing, insuightful and occasionally hilarious speech during her allotted time-slot to speak (my classmates and I will be organizing food distros – do you really want to undertake the task of regulating 20 unruly 12 year olds?). The room erupted in cheers as she returned from the testimony stand to her seat. During Nate's comments he pointed out that the walls of the room were actually accordion style movable walls and that there was obviously much more space available beyond the stated 40 person limit. Retried Sargent Lewis also movingly told the health board that as a former police officer he had regularly encountered the city’s neediest citizens and gotten to know them personally and that their plight demands attention to the root causes of Philadelphia’s 4000+ homeless population.
When the final person on the list of people interested in commenting had been called and their testimony was finished it was loudly announced that everyone in the room, including all members of the press, must exit the hearing room immediately or they would be subject to arrest. Some of the people taking part in the sit in agreed to leave before the arrests were to commence. Some had responsibilities or were awaiting trial for other free-speech related arrests and they were encouraged to attend to those issues before subjecting themselves to another arrest. Everyone expressed love for them and their courage and solidarity for joining us on the floor in our group statement about the absurdity of the city's bans on sharing as well as the absurdity of how the public hearing was being conducted. Four of us stubbornly remained in front of the room awaiting what appeared to be our imminent arrest. An officer with zip ties approached us, inquired whether any of us had medical conditions and I was assured that the medications in my coat would be given to the police department nurse as soon as we arrived at the station and that they would be administered according to the prescription. He left the room.
Several city officials still in the room as well as a group clustered just outside the entry to the room were observed rather frantically tenting (to whom and expressing what it is impossible to determine.)
We fully prepared ourselves for an arrest that clearly seemed to be only seconds away when after approximately 10 to 15 minutes the final members of the public who had endured standing outside approximately three hours due to their passionate conviction to speak to the city in person about the laws began to enter the room.
We had apparently had our arrests called off by someone higher up in the city. We remained in position, looked armed, on the floor and the final group of citizens began to be called on one by one to comment. After the four of us remaining sit-inners had looked at each other in shock we told those brave and patient souls who had been waiting over three hours since their initial arrival at the municipal building that one of the reason we had sat down was to call attention to the way they had been blockaded from even entering a public building, not even just a hearing room and whether we should now also sit with them in solidarity in the chairs? Do whatever you want to do! Was the reply. We shrugged and got up and joined them in the seats for the rest of the hearing.
As we were leaving a woman told a small group of us that she too had been arrested in the early 90s. She told us that she wished she could express her full opinion on the proposals but that she did not feel safe doing so at this time. However, she wanted to suggest that we encourage everyone to study and know the exact details of both the mayor's ban as well as health boards proposed regulations so that our messaging and facts would be perfectly crafted at the next meeting. She joined a number of us on the elevator down and we all politely exited the building.
About 15 Occupy Philly folks gathered at McGlinchy's for celebratory beers after what all of consider a fantastic night of testimonies and an event that felt like it was imbued with one of the strongest sprits of solidarity OP has experienced in a while. I for one needed those beers to try to settle my nerves. None the less I could not sleep until the daylight had already broken through my bedroom window.
The people who so eloquently and sincerely spoke concerning their experiences as either recipients of free food or providers of free food were the absolute heroes. So many smart and wonderful people on the verge of being further disenfranchised, excluded from public spaces, and denied their right to follow their own conscience's in even the most basic and human of ways!
It was horrifying to see the city's refusal to let all of us be heard together and to see the pathetic and disinterested members of the board of health - one of whom nodded off so frequently that several commenter pointed out his obvious boredom before they even began their remarks, and on the other hand so much passion and good will and heartfelt solidarity that it was also an afternoon of beauty and mutual love between so many diverse members of Philadelphia!