February 3, 2012
Washington, D.C. has become a mecca for Occupy protesters kicked out of their camps in other cities around the country.
Robert Dilley, a 26-year-old activist from New Jersey, recalled being run out of Zuccotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon started. He found it tough living out on the streets of Manhattan.
After leaving the New York protest camp, he slept in trains and churches for a while.
“Being homeless sucked,” he said. “You can’t be homeless and a full-time activist in New York City.”
Strung out and down to his last change of clothes, he drifted to Washington, where he found a “more welcoming environment.” He was given a fresh sleeping bag and a tent within a short of time of arriving.
He considered it a home — by his own definition, he said, a home is “a place to put your stuff down” among friends.
Except for a single taser incident, protesters interviewed Friday by Fog City Journal couldn’t recall any clashes with the authorities. One Dallas protester brought some Texas twang to the scene, located in McPherson Square, a park a few blocks from the White House. Volunteers run a small library. On Friday there was a free dinner of donated stew and raspberry cheesecake. A couple of denizens smoked dope in a pipe fashioned from a whole red apple.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that park police could enforce a ban on sleeping or being in possession of camping gear in McPherson Square, saying that camping on public property was not an activity protected by the First Amendment. But on Friday, the tents remained. A big blue tarp, known to protesters as the “tent of dreams,” draped the pedestal beneath the big central statue honoring Civil War General James B. McPherson, for whom the park is named.
Protesters winkingly denied there was any overnight sleeping going on in the hundred or so tents and tarps packed into the square, in deference to the rules. They had staged a “sleep strike,” taking turns prying each other’s eyelids open in the name of the 99 percent. As for what was going on inside the tarps, if not sleep, people were cagey.
“Some people have been accused of having sex or using drugs in those tents, but I’ve never seen any of that stuff going on,” Rich Coffman, 42, the Dallas protester, said.
Coffman held forth in a scavenged wooden chair at the edge of the square, near busy Vermont Avenue. Passersby ignored him for the most part, although a few smiled or gave a thumbs-up when they walked by. He advocated two main principles that he suggested everyone could practice — removing one’s money from any commercial bank that contributed to the housing crisis, and making “moral purchases.”
“If you’re afraid to take all your money out, take half out,” he said. “And even if you’re just buying a pair of socks, ask, “Where did these socks come from?””
The protesters here put a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and direct action they take pains to show in a positive light. They have forged solidarity from living outdoors together in the dead of winter, albeit a mild one this year. The hardiness seems to reflect a political philosophy as much as a choice of tactics. To some, it may appear to be a lifestyle choice for the chronically unemployed, but McPherson Square regulars carry some weight, perhaps befitting the massive public architecture of the city around them.
Coffman said it was time for people upset with the status quo to stop pointing fingers at others. “Start pointing your finger at yourself,” he said.
Sara Otto, 37, a schoolteacher from the District, recalled quitting her job as a 9th grade English teacher when she became disenchanted by corporate influences she saw in the schools.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “Hedge funds are taking over schools and trading students like currency.”
Otto commutes to McPherson Square from her home, but she was part of the original encampment, which began October 2 last year. She participated enthusiastically in the daily General Assemblies, the non-hierarchical governance system that has been a hallmark of Occupy since the beginning. The meetings generated “amazing dialogue” at the beginning, she said, but lately, she’s become concerned that the system has broken down because facilitators — no one here is considered a “leader” — are too often attacked by some participants.
“The facilitators have endured a constant barrage,” she said, including accusations of being “democratic operatives” and “co-opting” the process.
But she said a little chaos and frustration is to be expected for a cause that only began in September. Any apparent drift or lack of clear direction doesn’t concern her at all.
Teachers, after all, have plenty of patience. Now, she hopes to put more public pressure against Wall Street, and thereby expose “hidden connections” that she said are undermining the schools with corporate influence.
“This is a young social movement starting to come out,” she said.
A few tents away, Coffman was similarly upbeat. He had heard some disturbing details about Occupy Oakland and clashes between protesters and police. Even if the powers-that-be win a few skirmishes, nobody at McPherson Square believed that would stop Occupy from becoming a true movement. A big action is in the works worldwide, planned for March 30 and culminating on May 1, the original labor day.
“You can cut all the roses, but you can’t stop the spring,” Coffman said.
Occupy DC at Wikipedia.