Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Tale of Two Occupations: Democracy is Not Tidy

At the beginning of October, I met a couple of the folks who were in their first week of occupying McPherson Square, located along the corporate lobbying corridor of K Street in my hometown of DC. They were determined to stay and spread a message about income inequality, crony capitalism, and the wrong direction our government was headed.

They stayed and they multiplied. At the time I was attending The Stop Machine multi-day rally at Freedom Plaza. I had earlier been associated with helping to organize this older, more strictly anti-war mobilization, but I had withdrawn from the steering committee both because of constraints on my time (busy work days and moving to a new apartment with my dog) and disagreements with the organizing style of others involved. I fell in love with Occupy DC at McPherson Square and even as I attended Stop the Machine at Freedom Plaza, I became even more disenchanted with them.

This is my story about the two occupations in DC, and how one has always been more true to the Occupy movement, warts and all, and how the other has struggled with identity and clumsily trying to fit in with the younger crowd.

The second week in October my college buddy Matt and I spent a week touring Arizona. It was the first time I had ever been in the Southwest. I was not expecting much for either occupation when I returned. But I remember listening to the radio in the rental car in amazement -- as occupies were popping up all over the country, including one in Phoenix.

When I returned to DC. The Occupy DC/K Street was easily five times the size it was when I had left town. I remember emerging from the McPherson Square Metro station and being filled with joy when I saw 75% of the park filled with tents. It was indeed a mostly under 35 crowd and they were full of energy and sincere hope.

Freedom Plaza seemed to maintain a somewhat smaller size, but nothing minuscule by any means. However, they had a more formal leadership structure than McPherson, which really had no leaders. Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers who had played crucial roles in the Stop Machine steering committee retained much power over finances and the setting of the initial agenda (a rather large set of policy demands and principles).

Over the next couple weeks, McPherson seemed to be doing more actions than Freedom Plaza. One focus was clearly the banks, directly following the lead from Occupy Wall Street (which had captured the nation's attention while hunkering down in Zuccotti -- I and a couple friends visited it the day the famous march to the Brooklyn Bridge resulted in approximately 700 arrests). Another focus was the enormous influence the K Street corporate lobbyists have over the government.

A march to the Washington Convention Center, where the villainous Koch brothers were hunkered down with right wing pundits and politicians (including a couple presidential candidates), was a powerful action I attended. We were able to block all the intersections surrounding the convention center, and even block the parking garage. This was fantastic, despite some rather overly-aggressive tactics at the convention center's doors and an unfortunate hit-and-run which probably could have been avoided. I witnessed at least one argument between protesters and car drivers trying to get home who had absolutely nothing to do with the Koch bothers' party.

In contrast, the Freedom Plaza folks seemed to be a bit more passive. And, yes, certainly older. These differences persist to this day, even through the Park Police's semi-eviction of both occupies.While the younger folks lack experience and sometimes get into rather unnecessary and unfortunate confrontations with the police (hint: let the police initiate physical contact, otherwise it will likely be a felony), the Freedom Plaza folks are too easy to accommodate the authorities. This accommodation is most clearly expressed through permits it has acquired (and extended) to have a rally. McPherson, much more akin to other occupies, has never had a permit and apparently never will.

In recent weeks, Kevin and Margaret were politely asked to start handing over the reigns to folks who have been living 24/7 at Freedom Plaza. There is still a rather close working relationship but the dynamic has changed, as the pair has leased two houses where a few activists, including themselves, live at this point. Kevin has oddly called living in a house "an encampment," and thus clearly part of the Occupy movement. Many in McPherson disagree. One of the two houses is the former Peace House on 12th Street NW.

Although the Park Police's violent crackdown on occupiers this past weekend in McPherson has dissuaded people from actually sleeping there, it did attract some newcommers and general assemblies continue to be held every night. This younger set has also experienced some arrests for nonviolent civil resistance (most notably the OccuBarn, blocking K Street during a large march, and the most recent day of eviction), many continue to be very determined to stay with the movement until the political-economic-social climate in this nation improves.

Freedom Plaza, which was initiated by many old-time anti-war folks has quickly adopted much of the language of the Occupy movement. However, it continues to be a slightly different phenomenon with still a very heavy emphasis on anti-war themes (Veterans for Peace still playing a huge role), and the generational gap between the two occupies is startling. It still seems a little awkward that these folks have clung onto Occupy, but perhaps they will begin to fit in if they truly have eschewed leadership structures and operate in a much more horizontal fashion, which is a hallmark of Occupy.

Although I know there are no official leaders of Occupy DC -- I do want to give a shout out to some great folks who have stepped up to the plate -- my sincere thanks to them for the hard work in creating a better future:
Adrian P. -- Thank you for the hard work and sacrifice for my hometown's dignity and rights.
Ali S. -- Come back we need you!
Caty M. -- You rock the facilitation scene!
Drew V. -- Great thinker, great organizer.
Marc S. -- You show up everywhere and you usually do so while live-streaming!
R.B. Lash -- I love you man, and I think a lot of folks love you!
Ricky L. -- Same as Caty,
Sam J. -- The media man, the message man.