This is a story I put together for the Unconvention, an all-volunteer daily paper published by the Independent Media Center for one week during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. To see it as it was cut for the paper, click here (PDF file).KWRU March for Economic Human Rights
An estimated 5000 people poured out of the plaza of City Hall and on to the street Monday for a four-and-a-half-mile march under blazing sunshine, thundering helicopters and the gaze of hundreds of police. The demonstrators marched with dedication, discipline and high spirits--and without a permit.
The Rally and March for Economic Human Rights, sponsored by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union turned into a massive reality tour down South Broad Street toward the First Union Center where the Republican Party is to anoint its nominee. Marchers demanded social and economic justice, jobs, housing, health care, and other basic human and civil rights for all Americans, especially the poor.
With police everywhere--on horseback, in patrol cars, on bicycles and motorcycles, in helicopters, even on top of neighboring buildings--many had visions of another Seattle or Washington, where police and demonstrators clashed. Paddy wagons were lined up and ready to be filled with marchers.
"[The police]told us everything from they're getting the DHS [Department of Human Services] to take our kids away if we bring them to the march to they were distributing gas masks, so I don't know what's going to happen," said Cheri Honkala, KWRU's director. "We're going to march as far as we can go."
Although KWRU had been denied a permit to march because they refused to march on the sidewalk, at the end of the day the wagons went home almost empty.
A police spokesperson reported at 10 p.m. Monday night that at least two arrests were made during the march. At 4:15 p.m. police arrested two males, he said, on charges of criminal mischief and trespassing for climbing over a fence into a "restricted area." The two have been released and a hearing scheduled, he said.
Before the march started, Honkala, within the police's earshot, led the marchers through a pledge: "I promise to participate by being non-violent. I promise to co-operate with the leadership of this march that have orange vests on."
But at first, the main obstacle in front to the march was not the police but numerous camera crews, reporters, and it was the police that helped get the march going. To the beat of drums and cheers of "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Poverty has got to go!" the marchers filed slowly along the street, led by a group of disabled activists in wheelchairs.
Though the marchers were extremely diverse in terms of age, class, ethnicity and physical ability many stated similar goals and reasons for attending.
The Republicans "closed down three deaf schools," said Jimmy Zarlinga, 10, a student at the Ohio School for the Deaf. "The blind, the deaf, the poor. We're all in this together."
[OPTIONAL CUT] "In the last few years there has been an unprecedented trickle up from the poor to the rich," said Alan Brison, 62, of New Haven. "Both parties...are totally committed to the same corporate agenda."
Rachel Wallis, 19, and wearing a "Homes Not Jails" T-shirt, had traveled from Cleveland. "Ohio is the first state in the nation to have the welfare cut-off date. On Oct.15, 3000 families are getting booted off welfare and food stamps. Over the next few years, we're going to see scores and scores of people in this situation." [end OPTIONAL CUT]
KWRU's placards gave the situation in plain terms: 45 million Americans without health insurance; 35 million in poverty.
"There is no issue more important in this country," said Lou Ann Merckle, 46, an art teacher from Philadelphia. "As a middle class white person, I can't stand by with my privilege and watch people suffer. We have the means. To not stand alongside our brothers and sisters in poverty is a social crime of unfathomable proportions."
[OPTIONAL CUT]Christie Balka is the director of Bread & Roses, which funds KWRU. "Liberal organizations concerned with poverty have given up in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform act," she said. "KWRU keeps [both] the social justice movement and public elected officials honest. They are one of the few voices of poor people left in the movement." [end OPTIONAL CUT]
The Thin Blue Line
While the march proceeded without incident, some were concerned with the police reaction.
[OPTIONAL CUT]"This is a march for those living in poverty," said KWRU's head of security. "We're not terrorists, we're not interested in civil disobedience. We've been reacting to their [the police's] moves. We have our agenda and that's what we've been sticking to."[end OPTIONAL CUT]
Rita Addessa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, was dismayed to see ranks of police horses following behind the marchers. "In (the) 1991 demonstrations the police turned very violent and the horses stampeded," said Addessa who recalled a police agreement not to bring horses to demonstrations. "One would expect police oppression at a march like this since it's a direct challenge to economic hegemony."
[OPTIONAL CUT]As protesters crossed Spruce Street, Police Commissioner John F. Timoney arrived on a bicycle to survey the situation, and give instructions to officers before pedaling down Broad Street, leaving the protest behind.[end OPTIONAL CUT]
On the block between Christian and Carpenter, police were in position with plexi-cuffs and gas masks, and appeared ready to end the march and perhaps make mass arrests. But as the marchers reached the corner of Carpenter, the police received word from Timoney that the march was to be allowed to continue.
[OPTIONAL CUT]"The police and demonstrators worked out a compromise and both are behaving wonderfully. I hope it continues like this because America is watching us," said one bystander, Henry Nechemias, a volunteer tour guide with Foundation for Architecture.[end OPTIONAL CUT]
But arrests were threatened again near the end of the march.
"We're here, we're hot! True democracy can't be bought!"
The march arrived at the I-76 underpass just after 2 p.m. and a cheer arose from the marchers as they reached a fence surrounding the First Union Center. Police on the other side deterred marchers from climbing the fence, and a line of police blocked Broad Street at Hartranft.
As the mounted police and buses closed in from behind, the first person to reach the police blockade was Asa Khlaif of Racial Unity. Khlaif approached them and asked Commissioner Timoney, "If I cross this line, will I be arrested?" Timoney stared him in the eye and answered, "Yes."
[OPTIONAL CUT]Khlaif told a reporter, "We have a hundred people who have come to represent our group at this march and I think if we are going to cross we should do it as a group. If any one wants to cross on their own after that, that's their decision."[end OPTIONAL CUT]
Members of a "Black Block" anarchist group also thought about crossing. But the orange-vested KWRU organizers were instructing marchers to turn west on Hartranft toward FDR Park. One Black Blocker explained the group wanted to respect KWRU's wishes: "This is their event. I am 100 percent behind KWRU."
As most marchers turned, between 100 and 200 people remained behind, feeling that the turn was a diversion. By 2:30 p.m. it was clear nothing would be gained from remaining there. "This is close as we're going to get" said one marcher. "This is indirect action," quipped another.
Later at a press conference, Timoney said Philadelphia police have a history of handling large scale protests well because of the use of plain-clothes officers who negotiate with major protest groups.
"Fornicators and drunkards will join Tupac in Hell"
Undeterred by a small group of anti-abortion protesters wielding gory photos and puzzling signs, most marchers headed west at the blockade through the Packer Park neighborhood and FDR park, an unexpected one-and-half-mile-hike that drained the last reserves of energy from most marchers. At the end of the park, on the other side of a chain link fence, the First Union Center could be seen in the distance.
The park turned into a hang-out for exhausted, heat-dazed marchers. Some went swimming in the lake. One group of Vermont puppeteers mounted a production of "Goat with a Vote."
Sunburned protesters traded water bottles as medics kept their eyes peeled for signs of heat exhaustion. "I'm a little worried about people not realizing they have heat stroke until later in the day," medic Megan Wolff admitted.
In the park, one marcher, Lisa Santer, 41, of Queen Village, Philadelphia, said she found the march inspiring. "The willingness of people to march for something they believed in, in spite of the uncertainty of what would happen....This is a movement led by poor people and it's the middle-class and affluent people who follow them, and that's revolutionary in itself."
[OPTIONAL CUT]Few police were in the park, although Timoney rode through on his bicycle. A few motorcycle police rode through, with people "riding video".
A marcher from Boston, Loren Kramer, on the police: "I'm pleased the police didn't go haywire. They behaved themselves."[end OPTIONAL CUT]
Doc Rosen of the R2K Medical Collective said in the park at that the collective treated a dozen marchers for heat exhaustion, one man for a sprained ankle, and one woman for a wrenched knee. The police public affairs office later reported one sergeant and two officers suffered heat exhaustion.
This is the story of Johnny Rotten...
The march had its surreal moments. At City Hall, just before the group departed, two men carrying an upside-down American flag were escorted by police past Wawa employees preparing for the arrival of the mile-and-a-quarter long sandwich that would commemorate "Hoagie Day."
An MTV film crew wandered about with commentator Johnny Rotten, formerly of the seminal British punk band the Sex Pistols. "I'm here because American politics amuses me," he sneered.
At Catherine Street, the press raced away from the larger group on the belief that an arrest was taking place. Alas, it was only a grinning Newt Gingrich, the Republican mastermind of the Contract for America who was later deposed as speaker of the House. He emerged from a White Castle at Catherine Street to be swarmed by reporters.
[OPTIONAL CUT]Sally S. Future [SEE PHOTO BY CHRISTIE] was wearing a bloody dress with a hanger attached to it. She sported a noose for a necktie, an upside-down flag for a mask, and an assortment of bruises. "I represent the future of America should George W. Bush get in office. I am a victim of a back alley abortion, criminal injustice, domestic violence and poverty. This is what it could be like for women who are not wealthy and privileged."[end OPTIONAL CUT]
The protest group Billionaires for Bush (and Gore) stood on the sidewalk near South Street, with a papier-mache pig on a leash, shouting at the marchers. "What's wrong with you people? There's no money in this!" One "billionaire" named Xavoyev, who was squirting a water gun at the marchers, said she was here to "have a good time and make some money." The Billionaires might be kidding around, but others weren't.
"I think they're fabulous," said Cindy Phillips, a medical receptionist, about the Republican conventioneers. Of the issues raised by the marchers, she opined, "I don't agree the people should make decisions on anything. I have faith in our system."
"She misreads history," said Willie Baptist, KWRU's educational director. "This country was founded on the principle of 'by the people, for the people, and of the people.'"
[OPTIONAL CUT]More than a few of the marchers trained for activism at Training for Change here in West Philadelphia. George Lakey, its executive director marched today as well. "Historically, when the income spread becomes greater between the rich and the poor, broad social movements emerge, such as those at the turn of the century and those of the 1930s," he said. "This one is unusual because so many participants come from the privileged classes. They reflect the emptiness of life in the suburbs. I keep running into young people who express boredom. They want their lives to mean something. I'm delighted they are choosing social action."[end OPTIONAL CUT]
Contributors to this article include Kristen Gallagher Ammi Keller, John Tarleton, Jason Ford, Mattie O'Boyle. The KWRU is on the web at www.kwru.org.
[MORE OPTIONAL QUOTES]
Jackie Eccleston, a student at Philadelphia Community College and mother of three, enjoyed watching the march. "I learned a lot of things I didn't know...the poverty level in this city, what they're doing to children and about police brutality... I've seen how they treat us in this neighborhood. They're here to remind people what will happen if they get out of line," she said. "That prison van [reminds you that] you don't have as much freedom as you think you have." But Eccleston wondered why it took a Republican convention to get so much support. "When the Republican leave, will everyone put their signs away? "I've seen so many murders and there are abandoned houses; why can't we spend the money to fix them up instead of spending it on another stadium we don't need? [Mayor] John Street wouldn't set foot in this neighborhood," she said of the Broad and Dickinson area.
Seventeen blistering blocks south of City Hall, marchers were cheered on by a group of staff at Philadelphia's District 2 Health Care Center, one of ten clinics serving the uninsured in Philadelphia. A nurse there, Roe Marcelis, was familiar with the kind of problems the poor face getting care. "It's not easy. You have to sit for six, eight hours."
John Blazer, of the KRWU's legal team, said, "The police held a hard line in their position not to allow the march unless it took place on the sidewalk. We refused to agree with this...I think they said let's see what this looks like. And they saw it was peaceful, they saw it was organized, and I think the city made the right decision." "This was a victory for the poor and homeless," he added. "They've shown that the poor have not disappeared...that they have power, that they're not going to back down, and that we're organized. And I think this was a victory for the city and the police."
Zeke Donnie, a young South Philadelphia man, commented, "They are marching for what's right." On the police presence, he said, "I don't think it's necessary." And on the Republicans: "I could[n't] care less about them--I don't know why they're here."
Phelicia Dawson, a leader of the Little Rock Women's Coalition came to Philadelphia "because the situation in Little Rock was a lot like it was here in Philadelphia. It's the same everywhere." Another member from Little Rock, surrounded by her grandchildren, explained that "This is all about poverty, a show of solidarity. And to show that were not all as divided as we sometimes think. I brought my grandchildren because we at the Women's Center believe that we should involve our children. One of the problems is that we don't involve our children in the decisions and issues of our lives. We seem to expect that when we turn 18 they're suddenly going to start acting and thinking differently."
Gwen Braxton, 59, of the National Black Women's Health Project, summarized the feelings of many on the streets towards the distribution of resources in this country and around the world. "In order to have justice, we need to end wealth as we know it."
Bystander Augie Nigro, teacher from Deptford NJ, on his bike: "It's good that they're saying it here...it's something the Republicans don't listen to."
One 65-year-old man, an immigrant: "Very impressive. There are people who are living in the limelight. How can there be so many poor people? The US represents the highest form of capitalism in the world. It is surprising that so many people are demonstrating against the highest power in the world...They are brave people. One feels heartened by this...[The issues of poverty and wealth] are the most important issues today. This should be in front of us every day."
Watcher Al Zappala of South Philadelphia, a retired federal worker: "I think its great...I think wealth and power is in too few hands and should be redistributed. His companion, Joan Kosloff, retired city worker from the Recreation Department: "We need a labor party. We need candidates that represent working people...It's great to see all these young people so unified on all these issues. It's so exciting." She said she has no health coverage. Her first demonstration was in 1957 for integrated schools.
George Lakey: "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. I'm having a wonderful time and the temper of people is very good" On the permit: "It looks like a win-win situation. The city gets to reduce disruption and we get to exercise our constitutional rights." About recent upsurge in activism: "Historically, when the income spread becomes greater between the rich and the poor, broad social movements emerge, such as those at the turn of the century and those of the 1930s. This one is unusual because so many participants come from the privileged classes. They reflect the emptiness of life in the suburbs. I keep running into young people who express boredom. They want their lives to mean something. I'm delighted they are choosing social action. I only wish there were more older folks like me here because we have lessons to teach. They [the young] bring creativity and youthful exuberance, which is great for old bums like me.
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