Daniel Rubin: Occupy Philadelphia likely to keep going strong

Sociologist Heather Gautney has perspective and expertise on such social movements.

With rain falling on Occupy Philadelphia, conventional wisdom calls for dissipation, although I wouldn't count out any tent city equipped with tech support, a power station, and two lending libraries. A movement stocked with Jane Austen seems intent on sticking around.

One week into the anti-plutocracy demonstration outside City Hall, it would be helpful if an expert could sort out the messages and explain what's behind the good-natured gathering and what's ahead. Turns out we had one on site.

Heather Gautney is a Fordham University sociologist whose specialty is social movements. Since Occupy Wall Street took over Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park Sept. 17, she's been studying the protest, providing context to CNN, writing an explainer for the Washington Post.

Gautney thought she was taking a four-day break when she drove to Philadelphia last Thursday to join her husband, a cameraman shooting the David O. Russell movie A Silver Lining around town.

Checking into the Marriott Residences that morning, she was delighted to find Occupy Philly unfolding outside her front door. A busman's holiday.

"I had to go out of town and, lo and behold, I am in a new occupied zone," said the 41-year-old West Chester native.

Do you support the Occupy Philadelphia protest?

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For four days, Gautney put to work her scientific method, which she describes as "mulling about and hanging out," then typing up field notes. She's adding a chapter on Occupy Wall Street to her 2009 book, Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era.

Gautney had much to say by phone the other day about what she experienced in Philadelphia, how it differs from the Wall Street protest, and how to forecast whether the occupation will have lasting effect.

Both here and in New York, we're hearing the dissonant, emerging voices of participatory democracy - a chorus of individuals, not as much leaderless as a collective of leaders. But Philadelphia felt different to Gautney.

"The Philly protest is radically more diverse. I think there are more African Americans than you see in Occupy Wall Street, and that's been one of the big criticisms of what is happening in New York."

Here, you can read the signs to grasp the breadth of grievances: calls against Wall Street bailouts, war, racism, incarceration, student debt, government indifference. There's room for every cause, even a cry to "Free Tex Watson," a member of the Manson family. Tex Watson, really?

She said the tents staked in William Penn's Centre Square show how the city and police are more cooperative here, but that doesn't necessarily help a movement gain momentum. Conflict does.

So what are the markers for success? "First is media coverage," she said. Check. "And whether or not there is a sympathetic take." Check.

Next is whether politicians pay heed. Last week, President Obama said the protesters were giving voice to frustration with the way financiers responsible for the recession are fighting further regulation.

"That's a pretty significant accomplishment for people at a grassroots level," Gautney said. "He's been quasi-sympathetic."

But unsympathetic political notice helps more, she said, noting that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain likened the protesters to "jealous" Americans who "play the victim card."

"He is saying these people are a bunch of whiners. We're talking about people suffering from 9 and 10 percent unemployment. Every time those sorts of insults are expressed, people respond strongly. It incites them to action."

Gautney finds power in the general store of outrages that has moved unlike people to act.

"When you see people who have never protested before, then you've got a popular movement. You have people who worked hard all their lives, at different levels of society. When a movement starts to attract people who are in lower incomes or social positions finding things in common with the middle or upper middle class, then watch out."


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.