Times like this, I wish I was a reporter and not just a humble blogger who was working near downtown and decided to walk over and check out the Occupation of City Hall.
City Councilman Luis Aponte introduced a resolution in support of allowing the Occupiers to stay in Burnside Park indefinitely and exercise their right to free speech. Word went out on the intertubes that Occupy would hold the General Assembly in City Hall and attend the City Council meeting, in support of this Democratic process.
I had been in City Hall a few times. My point of reference was the 2003 Providence City Council session where the city passed a resolution against the Iraq War. I expected a large crowd and a peaceful session.
When I got to Burnside Park I was surprised to find just a couple of dozen people huddled under umbrellas, holding a planning session by the fountain. There were rotating speakers representing the different working groups that hash out details and bring proposals to the whole Occupation. There were calls for volunteers for Safety and Support to stay by the tents during the City Hall action, to speak with the police and the press. To stand by the door to City Hall and make sure it was kept open.
Ashley and Annie Rose explained the hand signals, the process, and the philosophy. ‘This is not a leaderless movement, this is a movement of leaders.’ And, ‘this is not planning for the movement, this is the movement.’
The amazing thing is– it was working. The mood was peaceful, civil, determined. But kind of loud. ‘We Are Unstoppable–Another World is Possible.’ Marching past the bus commuters in Kennedy Plaza. The people waiting in Kennedy Plaza see it all– the demonstrations, the RIPTA cuts.
We marched up to the doors and walked in.
From a chilly rain to a comfortable and grand public center. Providence City Hall is a treasure, built in 1878, gilt, marble, tile and paintings. Chandeliers, brass and a curving staircase. And no one stopping us.
A policewoman came up and talked to some occupiers, she didn’t look worried. Men in suits walked through the crowd of demonstrators and conversed or opted for the elevators, but they were doing their job and so were we.
City Hall is distractingly beautiful. There were a few children, who were enjoying this like a field trip to the museum. I ran into Dave, who was taking in the gallery show– an exhibition of WRNI’s ‘This I Believe’ contributors photos and statements. WRNI is brought to you by Rhode Islanders who organized to make it happen, and one of the photos I recognized as Barbara Schweitzer, a poet and friend. Which is to say, in Rhode Island you know people– that’s our strength.
The General Assembly was held on the stairs. People had been trickling in, the second floor filled up. A speaker reviewed the drill. Councilman Aponte had introduced a resolution for the Occupation to stay. We were there to observe and show support.
One of us was in a wheelchair, and I saw him still on the first floor. I went down to see if he needed any help to get into the hearing room, if there was any problem with the elevators. He was fine, but I overheard him talking with the policewoman, who had spent most of her time at the desk by the door. The man had apparently not been here before.
‘…this place is with a church?’ he asked.
‘No’, the policewoman said, ‘I think that’s the whole idea, it’s separation of Church and State.’
I can understand the man’s confusion. We don’t build civic temples like Providence City Hall anymore.
I went back up the stairs and heard a young woman ask ‘Are we allowed to go inside a City Council meeting?’
‘Yes,’ a man answered, ‘and more of us should. It’s not only a right, it’s an obligation.’
Occupy Providence marched loudly up the stairs to the third floor and filled the room, including some in the balcony. Not quite the crowd that filled the room in 2003, but a presence.
The session opened with an invocation, and the chaplain asked for blessings on the council members and on Occupy Providence. We pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Councilman Aponte asked that the Occupiers be allowed to continue their exercise of free speech. ‘The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the words, ‘and justice for all.’ ‘let’s allow them to occupy Burnside Park. Though it may be inconvenient, let’s err on the side of more freedom and not less.’
After Councilman Aponte spoke, five more members stood up in support. Several of them mentioned the nonviolent nature of the protest, the consideration and cooperation of the Occupiers. The justice of their cause. ‘You are treating the park like it is your park, thank you, I appreciate your message.’ More than one said that Burnside Park is cleaner and safer since the Occupiers moved in than it ever was.
Those of us who spend some time in Downtown know that this is true.
Councilman Aponte’s resolution will go to committee. The Occupation was still there when I left, cheering a motion to support RIPTA. The City Council seldom has so much attention to their sessions.
Lobbyists and the wealthy have their paths of influence. If the rest of us are willing to put ourselves into City Hall on a cold rainy night after a hard day’s work, it has an effect. What if the cost per vote becomes priceless? This is what Democracy looks like.
I think the Occupiers are demonstrating a new model of power. Nonviolence is a fine word, but a negative. An absence of harm, but what fills the gap? Does our language have words to describe it?
When I walked into Burnside Park and joined the group I could have been anyone, and I could have volunteered for anything. There was no security check on me. How can this work? How can it work when the park is the long time hangout of people who have nowhere else to go, some so troubled that they are not accepted anywhere? How can this movement operate this way when history tells us there will be provocateurs and predators of all kinds?
I think the answer is that a new way of relating is being worked out. Perhaps this could only happen in a time of crisis. Danger and opportunity.
Americans famously come together in crisis. This may be the dynamic of the bucket brigade. When the house is burning you don’t argue– you grab a bucket and put the fire out.
Our country is in crisis, caught between fear and hope. This may be the birth of a 21st Century way of being. It is a sure thing that endlessly expanding consumption is not sustainable, and circling the wagons spins into a space so small that most of us will be outside the safe zone.
It was cool to see children and adults discovering the beautiful building downtown that they had never seen from inside. And it’s ours. Our own government, of the people, by the people and for the people. This is what Democracy looks like.
PROVIDENCE JOURNAL: First report here. Richard Dujardin reports ‘at least five’ of the eleven members supported Occupy Providence. I counted six. It’s on the record, anyway. The resolution was sent to committee, so keep those calls and letters coming.