There’s something unique about Occupy Harrisburg in Pennsylvania – this capital city is bankrupt. The NBC Nightly News had mentioned Harrisburg’s financial problems, and I paused over dinner, lost in the magnitude of so many bad business decisions, greed at their core. Now, there was no money to maintain the riverfront park – residents organized with their own clippers and rakes to ready it for autumn. A sinkhole over century-old brick sewers had closed Third Street for weeks, and a second sinkhole blocks away had two sawhorses and a mangled orange cone for warning and no prospects for a timely repair. And steps descending to the Susquehanna River had caved in, pulling a streetlight down with them. The city cordoned it off with crime tape, literally the cheapest response possible. I had slipped under the tape to stand on the mangled steps, to find my balance on their tilt and peer under at the muddy cave. It was scary. Our city was washing out from beneath.
What would my bankrupt home look like a year from now? Or even by spring? I was thinking of that as I joined protestors on the capital steps at State and Third. I had come, it all honestly, just to see what this occupation stuff looked like. A first aid table on one side; free food table on the other, complete with a composting and recycling station; hand-outs and pamphlets neatly arranged in plastic bags. A drum circle, a sign-making station. A huge one-legged woman in a wheelchair, leading chants with a fantastic voice. A green-haired man bringing donuts and coffee to a war vet leaning on a post, his small flag upside down on a pole, the signal of distress. A very young boy asking to be interviewed by the news crew. Cops on drive-bys, honking support to the ecstatic delight of everyone. A gadfly piercing the crowd to tell protestors to buy stock, that was the way to fix things.
Behind us, the rotunda gleamed in the sunset as if nothing in politics were tarnished, and its massive doors swung open as a classy gathering exited down the long capital steps. High heels, tuxedos, bracelets, silver watches, little black dresses, handbags, hairstyles. Pauses. Glances. By quick consensus, the protestors agreed to clear a center aisle so the party could get through – wedding was the rumor, although there was no bride or groom.
The party watched us, waiting, but then most rerouted rather than pass through.
Pass through what? Awareness? Differences? People dressed for the weather, for the duration, rather than people dressed for a private party in the capital? Past free food and the overweight woman with one leg? Past discontent and truth and cardboard signs?
And I realized that was what I had come to see – that moment of awareness, of decision, and not just on the part of the wedding party. It was the moment seized by the protestors, to accommodate, to invite, to see the viewpoint of the party that had not anticipated a motley mess of the disenchanted. A different roster of protestors would have heckled the party-goers, would have blocked their way to slur at the wealthy. And maybe they did deserve it. But the protestors kept civility in their game plan, tucked judgment in a back pocket. I was fascinated.
As the party left and the protestors settled back to the center steps, it felt for a moment like those steps would be cared for in the looming bankruptcy, would not wash out from torrents unseen or ignored, because people vigilant and patient and respectful had made them a home.