At 4PM Thursday March 15th roughly 200 Occupy Philly protesters gathered outside of the main entrance to the Municipal Services Building across the street from City Hall to openly defy Mayor Nutter’s attempt to criminalize the feeding of homeless and hungry Philadelphians. If the Mayor has his way it will become a crime, punishable by up to $150 to share a crust of bread with a starving man or woman on the streets of “brotherly love.” Nutter (perhaps the most aptly named figure in American political history) seeks to characterize his new policy as a compassionate concern for the well being and dignity of the cities unfortunate. But the poor, the homeless and their supporters see it as a callous move to sweep them off the streets and in particular off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway which is home to both the most visible center of food distribution to the homeless and the soon to open Barnes Foundation Museum. “Out of sight, out of mind” they say is the Mayors hope.
In an act of supreme irony Occupy set up their free food line right at the foot of a statue of Nutter’s equally nutty mayoral predecessor and former top cop Frank Rizzo. Salad, fried chicken, potatoes and vegetable platters were dispensed to the occupiers and grateful citizens in need of a good nourishing meal.
At 5:30 the group lined up at the door to enter and attend a public hearing of the city Board of Health where they had been told there would be an opportunity to make their voices heard. Rather than simply opening the doors and allowing the public to enter, which is the usual procedure at public comment sessions, the police threw up barricades and rationed admittance. At first only 50 at a time would be allowed to enter and then in an equally arbitrary move police downsized this to only 40. The rationalization given for this was that the hearing room was too small to accommodate any more at one time. In fact, the Municipal Services Building has many meeting rooms of varying sizes which would have been more than ample to seat all those present. The room which they had chosen to use was itself made up of movable wall partitions which had been closed off to reduce it to an acceptably inadequate size for the occasion. It could have easily been opened up to double that size or larger.
By the time the second group of people was allowed to enter they had been made to stand in the cold for nearly 2 hours and the atmosphere was tense. Testimony was passionate but polite. Former police Captain Ray Lewis, who had caused ripples when he joined the Occupiers in Zuccotti in November, was among those who testified as was a 12 year old girl named Sophie. Sophie won a rousing ovation from the crowd when, to the commissioners dismay, she dared them to try and tell her classmates they could not feed hungry people. “That would be a pretty good trick” she beamed confidently.
At some point a woman in the gallery mic checked the room to inform everyone that a woman named Kadijah had been arrested on the steps outside. No details were known
A few more attendees gave testimony when, on cue, a group of occupiers took the front of the room and sat down on the floor in front of the Health commissioners and locked arms. They denounced the proceeding as a sham and expressed their disbelief that the commissioners had any intention of taking anything they heard from the public seriously. (Only 3 of them 8 board members had even bothered to show up and one of them had, up to that point, appeared to be on the verge of falling asleep) From that point on Occupy controlled the meeting. They gave their testimony in Mic Check style allowing the commissioners to call on others to call on others to give testimony without interruption but making their own comments and observations at will in between. At some moments it seemed as though a GA was about to break out. The session ended and visitors filed out to make way for the next group. Under threat of arrest 4 of the occupiers remained, arms locked in front of the commissioners refusing to leave.
Now outside the word spread of the action in the hearing room. Everyone moved to a rear exit where police wagons had been pulled up to take away the defiant heroes. Cell phone reports from those inside revealed that rather than being taken out the fearless 4 (Alicia, Amy, Sean and Matt) were triumphantly holding their position through the 3rd and last session.
As that session ended the cops outside began to firm up barricades in preparation for taking them out to the waiting vans. The crowd had swelled to twice its size and included many print reporters and broadcast media. Live streamers from Occupy Tucson were beaming the events out to the world and the air was charged. This felt like no arrest ever seen. No perp walk of shame here. This was an Oscar night red carpet !! To the tune of an old time union song the crowd sang out:
Solidarity’s delicious !
Solidarity’s delicious !
Solidarity’s delicious !
And Free Food Makes Us Strong !
In an unexpected development, as the excitement grew, Matt emerged from around the corner of the building. He and the others had been released out the front door on the other side of the building. The cops had blinked. They cut them loose with no charges!!
It turned out that the only person to have been arrested was Khadijah. In the confrontations earlier she had had gotten into a scuffle with one or more of the bike cops. Some say she was provoked, some say she was attacked. It was unclear whether or not any tape of the incident exists. Khadijah was held nearly 24 hours before being released after 3PM the next afternoon. She was greeted outside the roundhouse (Philadelphia central police headquarters) by a dedicated support group if friends and family.
In a final ultimate twist. On the morning that she sat in a roundhouse cell for demonstrating for her right to provide an essential civic service to people in need, Khadijah was to have been the guest of honor at an award ceremony. The city was honoring her for being a young woman of color who selflessly provided outstanding civic service to the community. Mayor Nutter was to have been on hand to present the award.