“Heaven on Earth”: Occupy Philly soldiers on

By Alan Bean

After a day of listening to people speaking earnestly about human rights, I meandered back to the site of Occupy Philly.  As I arrived this evening, an earnest forty-something black guy was informing a cluster of twenty-something young people that every good and perfect gift can be traced back to the hippies of the 1960s.  In his view, the occupy movement was a recreation of the hippy spirit. 

His big idea was shoes.  Old shoes.  If everybody hung a pair around their neck, people would get the message.  

“What is the message?” I asked dimly.

“That people is missing in action; that voices are not being heard,” the man explained.

As I moved closer to the action I could see dozens of little discussion groups spread across the courtyard in front of Philadelphia’s city hall.

The group I joined was discussing the relative merits of keeping the small tent city where it is or moving to a more suitable location.  Everyone in the group I joined was about my age, which may be why I joined it.  Everyone, it seemed, was either old enough to remember the hippies or in their mid-to-late twenties with little representation from intervening age brackets.  It was also clear that 10% (or so) of the folks engaged in the discussion groups were homeless people.  A few of these folk were taking part in the discussion; most were simply listening.

When everyone had their say the GA (General Assembly) began.  The format of the meeting appeared to have been imported from the Arab Spring movement (as opposed to the Soviet revolution, as Michael Gerson has it in a silly column in the Washington Post.)  “Mike Check” someone would say.  “Mike check,” the crowd hollered back.  Then the speaker would line out his message in short bursts of verbiage reminiscent of a sermon in a black church.

“Our group discussed . . .” a speaker would begin.

“Our group discussed . . . ” the crowd echoed.

“The advisability of checking with city officials . . .”

“The advisability of checking with city officials . . .”

“As to whether permits would be honored .  .  .”

“As to whether permits would be honored . . .”

You get the picture.

All the speakers were white, most were young, and all were clearly college educated.  (The phrase “in terms of” always denotes someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time in a classroom, and I heard a lot of it this evening.)

At least a dozen people spoke tonight.  If the crowd liked the message, fingers waved in the air; if they didn’t like what they were hearing, fingers waved downward.  This too is an Arab Spring import.

The big concerns appeared to be: a. should we change locations so the city can renovate the plaza in front of city hall?; b. what are we going to do in preparation for the first blizzard; and c. what can we do to capture the attention of the city?  The most prominent answer to the last question was the occupation of vacant city properties.   A veteran of the US infantry suggested that, like an army, the occupying group should find a way of symbolically signifying its ownership of the new property.

Several speakers advocated setting up a separate community with its own schools, living quarters and food supply.  That way, it was explained, “we don’t have to worry about what everybody else does.”

Listening to these speakers I was seized by an odd sense of deja vu.  Then it struck me.  I was recalling “The Church and American Utopianism,” a course church historian Bill Leonard taught at Southern Seminary in the late 1970s.  One of the primary texts came to mind, “Heavens on Earth:  Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880.”

This wasn’t Oneida, Amana or the Mormons–this was Philadelphia in 2011; but the basic spirit is the same.  Something new is happening here that will change everything. 

In that sense, the spirit of Woodstock is alive in the Occupy movement, but in a much more earnest, vital and focused way.  I haven’t seen young people this centered since I was young myself–and that was a long, long time ago.

Like all utopian communities, the occupy movement will enjoy a relatively brief life span.  It’s current form is glorious and inspiring, but it isn’t sustainable.  Still, it might evolve into a permanent social force far more influential than the fear-and-resentment-drivenTea Party.

As I was leaving, I passed a homeless woman who was ranting at Barack Obama.  “Pick a lane,” she told the President, “it’s time to decide whose side you’re on.”  (expletives deleted).  It mattered not whether anyone was within twenty feet of her, the diatribe continued.  She had been on the same topic twelve hours earlier when I visited the tent city after breakfast. 

A homeless man approached and promised to tell me five really funny jokes for a dollar.  Number five I had heard before (one through four were too crude to repeat in this family forum).  “What’s the greatest nation on earth?” he asked.  “A do-nation.”  Now he was asking for four dollars–five if I could spare it.  I gave him two and moved on.

Long after the Occupy people have packed up their tents the mentally ill woman and the panhandling comedian will remain at their posts.  But I’m glad the Occupy people are doing what they are doing and I hope they are still hanging on when the flowers of Spring are in bloom.