This Independence Day, mere blocks from where the Fourth Amendment was born over two centuries prior, a passionate group of citizens rallied to restore its power.
As the nationwide Restore the Fourth movement gained traction on Reddit in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. online surveillance programs, supporters localized it by holding meetings and staging events in their communities. Appropriately enough, one of these groups formed in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American freedom.
The Philadelphia chapter of the movement began on the r/philadelphia subreddit, eventually forming its own community at r/phillyrestore. In less than a month, close to 100 redditors subscribed to the subreddit.
“It’s amazing that Reddit could be starting point for organization like this,” organizer Gabe Zygmund-Felt told the Daily Dot. “I was just amazed that a site that’s typically used for sillier—but entertaining—purposes can have such an impact. This is a community that has some pretty impressive values.”
Members of the Restore the Fourth movement quickly developed a clear set of ideals and goals.
“We want to reform Section 215 of the PATRIOT ACT,” Zygmund-Felt explained. “We want a committee that will judge the constitutionality of government surveillance, ensure transparency, ensure that the government functions within the boundaries of the Constitution, and we want people like (National Intelligence Director) James Clapper held responsible.”
The chapter looked to peacefully spread their message not only online, but in the streets as well. They chose to do so on, naturally, Independence Day, when Philadelphia sees its biggest influx of tourists and visitors.
“What better place to attempt to restore the Fourth Amendment than the birthplace of freedom?” Zygmund-Felt said. “‘Restore the Fourth’ is catchy, attention-grabbing, and its symbolism relating to July 4 is clear. We stand for the ideals supported by our forefathers and feel that they should be focused on now.”
While publicity in a local alternative newspaper and a June 22 canvassing event helped to publicize the movement, it was really the Internet that had the biggest effect, particularly Reddit.
“Reddit is where it started and it’s how everyone found out about it,” Zygumnd-Felt said.
Fellow organizer Stephen Setman agreed.
“We wouldn’t be here without Reddit,” Setman said. “Not too long ago, this kind of response probably couldn’t have happened.”
Larry West, a third organizer, also praised the Internet’s power in not only starting the movement, but also of rallying its supporters together.
“The Internet was absolutely crucial to this,” West said. “We spread the message through Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and even Tumblr. People need to get more active, annoyed, angry! They need to contact their Senators and Congressmen. Support is great, but your words are meaningless if you don’t do something to back them up.”
On July 4 itself, members of the Philadelphia chapter and their supporters met in Washington Square Park, a tree-filled urban oasis located two blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Once everyone was in place, a march through the streets of downtown Philadelphia to Thomas Paine Plaza would take place. There, on a busy plaza named for author and American Revolutionary icon Thomas Paine, the official rally would take place.
The organizers greeted the supporters and members of the press as the temperature climbed into the low 80s.
Before long, the group had swelled to almost 200 people. It was a gathering rife with diversity, its members representing all ages, races, and even political leanings. An older supporter, Ron Hussey, learned of the movement through his son, Rob, who had discovered it on Reddit.
“I have never been to one of these before in my life,” Hussey said. “Once my son told me about it, though, I was in. I was tired of talking; I wanted to do something concrete. Complacency in this country is making our government expand to maximum capacity. It’s way too big.”
Law student Eric Bergel also learned of the movement through Reddit. He chose to attend the July 4 rally and march due to his chosen area of study.
“I’m disgusted by what’s been going on,” Bergel said. “I spent a lot of money to get an understanding of the system, of the Fourth Amendment, and I don’t like seeing it trashed like this.”
Protesters carried signs denouncing the NSA’s recently-exposed actions, specifically as they pertained to their online life.
Promptly at 1 p.m., the crowd took to the streets, under orders from the organizers to be as peaceful as possible.
“Remember, we’re a non-violent demonstration!” Zygmund-Felt insisted. “Don’t try to instigate anything negative, we want people to notice us in the most positive ways possible! Let’s be harsh but reasonable!”
The streets of downtown Philadelphia echoed with the chants of the members, including “Hey, hey, NSA, whose email did you read today?” and “No more lies! The government spies!”
With a police escort in tow, the demonstrators steadily made their way past crowded hotels, shops, restaurants, and Philadelphia City Hall.
The sidewalks were teeming with people who had come into the city to watch the annual Independence Day parade just hours before. They reacted to the march unfolding in front of them with genuine interest, tinged with a bit of confusion—and the occasional bout of hostility.
“Buncha traitors!” one older man yelled to the marchers as they passed.
Other spectators showed their support of the movement through honking their car horns, waving, and snapping pictures. Some small children even danced in rhythm with the chants.
Finally, the group assembled on Thomas Paine Plaza, just across the Street from Philadelphia City Hall. They were mere yards from the former encampment site of Occupy Philly, which was razed by police in November 2011. Zygmund-Felt and other organizers took turns addressing the assembly.
“You should all be proud of yourselves for organizing this awesome protest and this great movement even though we only existed for a month so far!” he said.
So, what is next for the Restore the Fourth movement?
“We don’t have any specific events or rallies planned for the immediate future,” Zygmund-Felt said. “But the movement will definitely continue. The events will develop. What’s important is that we found an issue so severe that it shattered party lines. And we cannot continue to ignore it.”
The power of the Internet in general–and Reddit in particular–resulted in such a successful rally and march on the most significant day of America’s calendar. It’s almost no wonder that the government chose to pay extra-special, albeit unconstitutional, attention to it.
Photos by Mike Fenn