Occupy Philly Has Strong Voice

A tribute to an occupier who speaks up and listens

The deadline came and went, and the occupiers were still there. Amanda, with her reddish spiral curls and big silver earrings, was in the center of the throng, as usual. Sitting cross-legged on the ground in a sea of protesters, she was participating in the call-and-response ritual called the People’s Mic that the occupiers employ at their meetings. One person speaks, then those around the speaker repeats what’s been said; that way no electronic amplification is necessary. As a participant, the temptation can be to listen but not repeat—out of laziness, or saving your voice, or because you don’t like what the speaker is saying. But Amanda always repeated everything—every word and inflection.

Amanda was there at the very beginning. She was one of the charismatic organizers who spoke at Arch Street Methodist Church a few nights before the occupation began. She was completely focused then and now. I saw other people burn out, lose faith, disappear, go to war with each other, transition between committees. I never saw Amanda waver.

Amanda served as a mental health counselor at Occupy Philly. She has been there day after day for people who are, sometimes, unwell—delusional, strung out, high, in withdrawal, grandiose, confused, infuriated. That means she’s logged countless hours simply listening to people, letting them know that in her eyes, they were worthy of her unstinting regard and kindness.

Last night, after the deadline came and passed, people were a little on edge, but Amanda filled her lungs with air, and as always, spoke up.

She reminded everyone, in her strong voice—a little scratchy from too much shouting—that the dislocation and dehumanization that some of the occupiers face (being evicted from Dilworth, and risking arrest) are what people with behavioral health problems deal with every day, just by virtue of living in a culture that devalues them. She said the people she’s been talking to every day told her they wanted to participate in this movement, but they didn’t always feel it was safe for them to exercise their rights. When they were at Dilworth, Amanda continued, they were harrassed by police. They felt stigmatized and unwelcome.

Amanda spoke in looping sentences that didn’t lend themselves well to the People’s Mic. The echo chamber lost the thread. And maybe she did too, just a little, at the end, when it seemed all she could convey was that these people—the people she’d been talking to for two months—were important.

Then someone else spoke, and someone else, and Amanda—after a swig of her water to get the vocal chords back in shape—returned to repeating what other people were saying: the words of an Iraq war vet, who came out because he was tired of watching videos of police officers violating his fellow citizens’ constitutional rights; the words of a recent college grad working three part-time jobs to pay his student loan debt; the words of a man who called for a third American revolution. Amanda was there, giving voice to the voiceless.

Unable (unwilling?) to risk arrest myself, I made my way home. I wondered as I traveled what would happen to the homeless folks who’d lived at Dilworth before the occupation, and what would happen to the homeless folks who lived there now. I thought of people with severe mental illness getting arrested—what if they were on medication? What if they lost their bearings? Then I remembered that big-throated girl shouting at the top of her lungs for justice. She’s got this, I thought. She has from the beginning.