By Patrick Walters
PHILADELPHIA — Get ready for Occupy Fourth of July in the cradle of liberty.
Occupy groups from across the country are headed to Philadelphia for a national gathering on Independence Mall, seeking to unify their far-flung movement against economic inequality a half-year after police evicted protesters from encampments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and other cities. The event, which starts Saturday and runs through July 4, is expected to bring about 1,500 protesters for marches, speakers and camping during the city's annual Independence Day festivities.
That has Philadelphia officials bracing for extra people during a week that already brings more than 1 million tourists to town for concerts, fireworks and other celebrations. While the Occupy Philadelphia protests last year were largely peaceful, the city eventually became frustrated with protesters' refusal to leave a City Hall plaza and police evicted those who remained in late November; several dozen protesters were arrested in the raid's aftermath.
Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin said city officials have been preparing for the Occupy gathering, a conference being held by a spinoff group known as The 99% Working Group and other events planned by tea party activists.
"I don't think we've ever been better positioned to handle large events in Philadelphia than we are today," said Negrin, adding that city officials have been coordinating with other agencies for months. "We're being incredibly conservative and suggesting that any one of these events could bring thousands of people."
Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said the department will bolster its police presence downtown. They plan to use uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, mounted units and bicycle officers, but he declined to say how many additional officers will be on.
"Occupy can be very unpredictable in their movement," Bethel said, adding that the "leaderless" nature of the protests also present a challenge to law enforcement. "We're going to be all hands on deck."
Most of the events will center on Independence National Historical Park, in the city's historic district, an area widely known as the cradle of liberty — home to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud and the U.S. Constitution was adopted.
The National Park Service also will beef up staffing to deal with the extra crowds.
The national gathering is endorsed by more than 100 Occupy groups across the country. Organizers have kept in touch through a networking communication system known as "inter-Occupy," using conference calls and other means of communication, said Tammy Shapiro, a member of Occupy Wall Street.
Larry Swetman, a member of Occupy Philadelphia, said the conference will feature teach-ins, workshops, and protests, including one in which participants will march to the Comcast Center. On the fourth day, Swetman said, protesters will come up with a list of priorities and goals that will likely cover a broad range of issues including health care and housing. Ultimately, a group of protesters plans to lead a 99-mile march to Wall Street on July 5.
Swetman expects about 1,500 people, with some coming in caravans from all over the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Miami and Chicago.
The group isn't releasing many specifics, but camping will likely be part of the program. "Please be prepared to camp! Due to Philadelphia weather in July, tents more than likely won't be necessary, so you may not want to bring them," a statement on the group's website reads.
"What we plan is to `Occupy' for our national gathering in and around Independence Mall," Swetman said. "We occupy with tents and we build communities."
The second, smaller conference, dubbed "Continental Congress 2.0", is being planned at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from July 2 to July 4. That conference isn't endorsed by Occupy Wall Street. Organized by The 99% Working Group, it's expected to draw around 150 delegates from across the country, said Robert Manning, of Pinole, Calif., one of the organizers.
The group will develop a list of grievances that they plan to take to legislators, presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices in Washington. They plan to march to Independence Hall on July 4, Manning said.
The Independence Hall Tea Party Association is planning its annual celebration of "American Exceptionalism" on the mall on July 4 and expects up to 2,000 people, said association co-founder Don Adams.
Mayor Michael Nutter said he supports the rights of all the groups to exercise their right to free speech, but he wants them to be peaceful and be mindful of others' rights, as well.
"No one has the right to act like an idiot," Nutter said.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press