Occupy, Nutter Engage in Long Awaited Meeting

Posted on October 31, 2011 by

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Representatives of various working groups from Occupy Philadelphia met with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and a team of about 15 city employees at the American Friends Service Center at 15th and Cherry Streets on Sunday.

The agenda was planned by representatives of the working groups  prior to the meeting and four members of Occupy volunteered to facilitate the meeting.

On the agenda for the meeting was Occupy Philadelphia’s response, approved by the General Assembly (GA), to the letter it received from the city on Oct. 16. This letter  identified several concerns, including fire safety and sanitation concerns as well as a previously scheduled construction project due to begin around Dilworth Plaza as early as Nov. 15, 2011.

To read the letter from the city, click here. The GA approved response given to Mayor Nutter and his team yesterday can be found by clicking here.

The mayor looked tired and a little sad but he shook hands with many of the Occupiers in attendance before the meeting began. He spoke very softly and appeared to weigh his words very carefully throughout the meeting.

The meeting opened with introductions of everyone in the room. Each person in attendance stating their name and which working group they were representing, if any. City officials in attendance also stated their name and which branch of city government they represented. There were approximately 45 members of the Occupy  movement and 15 members of city government including the mayor.  The last peron to introduce himslef was Mayor Nutter who simply said, “Hi, I’m Michael.”

Following these remarks a question and answer session followed, allowing Occupiers to ask questions of the city as well as additional time for Occupiers to elaborate on the response letter to the city. The city was given 15 minutes to respond and future correspondence was planned.

The facilitators made clear that no decision made at this meeting would be binding and any issues discussed  would need to be brought back to the general assembly to go through the process of direct democracy practiced by the GA. Nutter and his colleagues were then given time to read the letter.

A concern was raised by a member of Occupy about Deputy Mayor Richard Negrin, who the member said had engaged in “Twitter wars” about the movement and had otherwise contributed to a negative environment. The speaker asked that Negrin be asked to “step back” from his role in communicating bout the occupation on behalf of the city and that someone else from the city fill in his position.

The mayor responded for Negrin saying he had personally been keeping track of the Twitter messages and was generally aware of what was being said. He suggested that “we might all step back and de-escalate.”

“We can’t just allow folks to beat the shit out of us and not say anything,” he said. An Occupier pointed out that there are some people on Twitter that may claim to be speaking for the Occupy movement without the authority to do so. Nutter expressed the challenge that he faced in knowing who was who.

“We will be mindful, and we ask that you be mindful if you see someone saying something that does not represent you,” he said.

As stated in the letter from the city, (link above) a construction project has been planned to begin at Dilwoth Plaza in the fall of 2011. The mayor answered questions about this saying that he felt this project “had the same elements that the occupation is talking about”since the project would put 1,000 people to work and would provide improved wheelchair access to the area. Nutter said that the project would not take money away from other projects because it was specifically earmarked for this project only. If the project were cancelled, the mayor said, the money could not be used for anything else.

While Occupy has not yet made a decision about whether to comply with the city’s request to relocate, possibilities of relocating and options were discussed. The city has identified a couple of places that it feels have many of the same benefits of Dilworth Plaza and they expressed hope a solution could be found between the two sides in cooperation and support of each other.

The Facilitation Working Group is currently working on a way to bring the issue to the GA for a vote. Their plan, as a member of this group explained yesterday, is to create a rubric to judge other possible sites and to compare their pros and cons. This process is similar to the initial process through which Occupy picked Dilworth Plaza at its second GA on Oct. 4. The mayor asked that he be informed of what those choices were so that the city could share information that the Occupiers might not have about those locations. The Facilitation representative responded by saying that the group’s choices would eventually shared with the public on the web site, but that the group would not commit at this time to any direct communication about these sites otherwise.

There are several repairs to City Hall that need to begin this week, both of which require large equipment to be moved onto the plaza in the next few days. Everett Gillison, Deputy Mayor in charge of Public Safety and the new Chief of Staff, explained the repairs and what the city needed in order to accomplish these.

Several Occupiers raised questions about the police and the money that the city is spending on overtime for them. A concern was voiced that this was perhaps a public relations campaign coordinated by the city designed to discredit the occupation. Mayor Nutter insisted that none of his staff wanted to release this information but members of the press asked them multiple times. He said that because this information is public his office was obligated to share those numbers with those who asked.

One member of Occupy stated that in their opinion, these costs were not necessary since the occupation has been peaceful. Nutter responded by describing what it was like to try to respond to the news that an occupy group was going to occupy Philly when his only gauge at the time was what was happening at occupy Wall Street.

“We didn’t have a lot of time and our job is to be prepared,” he said. He acknowledged that the Occupiers have been peaceful and that Occupy has been very good about letting the city know when and where they planned to march. However, he said, because has primary concern as mayor is public safety, he felt the city had an obligation to have enough officers in place in case of an incident.

A related concern was expressed that since the police were on the periphery, it was unclear what their role should be regarding keeping the Occupiers safe in the event of internal problems.

An example was brought up of an incident when a member of occupy resident allegedly asked a police officer standing nearby for help after being threatened with a knife by a person at the camp, this member was given no assistance. In general, the Occupiers said, they have been successful at resolving their own conflicts and deescalating people who get out of hand. But the question arose as to what the police role actually is in that case.If there ever is a need to seek help, and particularly since there are so many police officers standing close by, will that help be there? Should that help be there?

The mayor looked exasperated at this point and spoke of “tremendous mixed messages” from the speakers in the room, some of whom seemed to suggest that the police were doing too much while others complained that they weren’t doing enough.

Nutter expressed concern about the reactions of the police in the space and a desire to make their directives clear.

“The police have a sworn obligation to protect public safety,” he responded. “If they go in on a complaint about a knife, there was a concern that things would get out of hand, and then people will say what the hell are they doing and we would look like assholes.”

The tone of the meeting, while tense, was tempered with many expressions from both sides about their appreciation of the peaceful behavior of the other. More than once, it was noted that the city of Philadelphia had not had the kind of confrontations between Occupy and the city’s police force that other cities had experienced. Both sides expressed gratitude for the mutual cooperation and a willingness to continue a peaceful dialogue.

Two proposals, about providing for future communication on a weekly committee and a decision about relocation were brought back to GA.  A representative from the Legal working group reminded the mayor that they could be contacted any time via email: occupyphillylsg@gmail.com.

You can access the minutes from the meeting by clicking here

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