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Occupy Philly: When We Assume

November 14, 2011

Occupy, Anywhere, continues to make headlines.  It was this weekend in Philadelphia, however, where I saw fascinating rhetorical work emerge.   Occupy Philly made national news with a reported rape the night of Nov. 12.    The following day Mayor Michael Nutter laid out his critique of the occupiers.

from http://cityofphiladelphia.wordpress.com/

from http://www.facebook.com/OccupyPhiladelphia

Occupy Philadelphia Facebook Image

Nutter’s response covers a lot of ground but most of the comments are meant to justify his already made decision: “to increase the uniform police patrol in the area where Occupy Philly is as well as establish structured and strategic positioning and deployment of officers on a regular basis in that location as well.”

All in all this seems tame response, when one considers the alternative of Occupy Oakland and Portland.  But I think there is more going on here—at least in terms of end goals.  That is, Nutter wants to persuade the people of Philly about something beyond the reasonableness of his increased police presence order.

For example, Nutter argues:

Occupy Philly is fractured with internal disagreement and disputes. The people of Occupy Philly have also changed and their intentions have changed … and all of this is not good for Philadelphia. [Ellipse Nutter’s].

By positioning the claim of “internal disagreements” next to the claim of “changing” people and intentions, Nutter suggests the two go together.  His positioning also suggests both are reasons for why Occupy Philly isn’t good for Philadelphia.  But what, to speak rhetorically, warrants the connection?  Why are “internal disagreements” in Occupy Philly bad for the city?  Why is a change in people or intentions inherently bad?

What I see Nutter assuming here is 1) that fragmented disagreement inherently leads to negative consequences for the larger community and 2) while the initial occupiers might have been a noble and amiable group, the new people are dangerous.  These assumptions make Nutter’s description compelling, and they justify the increased police presence.  They also pave the way for sharper restrictions or outright removal–who wants dangerous people with negative intentions hanging round?

But why should we make those assumptions?  Nutter repeats that the “people have changed” but implies change must be for the worse by focusing on the occupiers’ recent lack of communication with City Hall. Not talking might be a problem, but does it always indicate malevolence?  Is change always for the worse?

I’m not the only one asking these questions:  early today Occupy Philly’s Facebook wall announced an afternoon press conference to respond to the mayor’s statement.  The announcement provided previews of the legal, safety, and women’s caucus remarks, and they call into question the warrants I point out as well as counter specific factual claims Nutter makes.   But that’s for another post.

 If you want to know more:

  • Nutter’s piece offers a lot more to dig your rhetorical claws into: his identification with the 99%, his appeals to job-creation, his semi-chronological reporting with interjections of narrative, his emphasis on cordiality, i.a..
  • A thorough course in the contemporary rhetorical theory of warrants would probably start with Stephen Toulmin’s work, such as The Uses of Argument.  A friendlier, immediately application version is found i in Booth, Column and Williams’s The Craft of Research.  See “Warrants” chapter.
  • It has occurred to me that Occupy Philly might hold on my attention because of its completely coincidental symbolism.  You know, the city of brotherly love, torn apart by class warfare and alleged rape.   Protesters, police and citizens clash over civil disobedience and patriotism where once the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. The Occupy camp is in the shadow of the historical city hall—soon to be renovated.  The city trademarked the phrase “Life • Liberty • and You”.   The mayor’s name is Nutter. It doesn’t take a Shakespeare to see the metaphorical potentials, though the ultimate end as tragedy or comedy will be left to time, and possibly Aaron Sorkin, to tell.
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