Occupy Goes to Washington, Finding Politics is Complicated

Perched on a hard stone platform, Freedom Plaza is close to the monuments of power in DC.

WASHINGTON — Even by Occupy Wall Street standards, the Washington, D.C. situation is messy and uncertain.

With most of the largest protest encampments around the country dismantled by the authorities, D.C. has two Occupy encampments — largely left unbothered by federal authorities — which are now the liveliest venue for the movement’s experimentation with methods and message — and the best indicator of the turbulence that lies ahead.


“As far as I’m, concerned, Occupy Wall Street started in New York and ends in D.C.,” said Ricky, a member of the occupation in the capital. (Some occupiers prefer not to give last names.)

He told me that on Sunday, Nov. 27 in front of Philadelphia City Hall, having come as part of a contingent to support that camp on the day of its eviction deadline. (It was finally raided the morning of the 29th). As Philadelphia, New York, Boston and ever more encampments around the county are cleared out by local authorities, the movement is consolidating in what many occupiers consider to be the enemy’s lap.

It’s an odd, but also fitting epicenter for a movement defined by a loud, yelping, ‘No’ against a political and economic system that increasingly shifts wealth to the top 1 percent of society.

“To me this is the pulse of the nation,” said Dan Newell, who recently hitchhiked from Michigan to D.C. “If any changes are going to be made, they are going to be made here.”

In the nation’s capital, two camps are thriving and legally protected from the surprise raids that have ended most occupations. That ginger legal treatment comes even after one camp –- on McPherson Square — has picked some of Occupy’s biggest fights yet. First it put up a building the size of a small house in a park where even tents are not, strictly speaking, allowed. Then it shut down a critical and iconic city thoroughfare in protest of money’s influence on politics.

Hunger striker Kelly Mears, a 24-year-old software developer, keeps a steady Internet presence from his 3G-equipped iPad. On Wednesday he tweeted that he had already lost about 20 pounds.

The latest, most dramatic act from the camp is a hunger strike by three members demanding statehood and fiscal independence for Washington, D.C.

That same week, labor unions and other organized, liberal establishment groups led their own marches on Washington power centers. Their week of action, named Take Back The Capitol, sometimes adopted OWS rhetoric such as “we are the 99 percent,” sometimes distanced itself from it, and sometimes got into minor squabbles with the inchoate and evolving Occupy movement.

Socio-economics, generational values, activism styles, and even senses of humor separate the two D.C. camps from each other, as well as from players such as organized labor and established political action groups.

There may be no better place than D.C. to observe how the Occupy movement may branch and splinter — and perhaps even fall apart.

Occupiers at McPherson square have the relative luxury of soft ground and shade trees.

One of the (physical and ideological) camps, formally know as “Occupy DC,” is at McPherson Square, a green haven along the infamous K Street, heart of the DC lobbying industry. Basically, it’s the Kids’ Camp -– largely Gen Y protesters. Many, maybe most, feel no connection to old political allegiances like liberal versus conservative. They are unhappy about a lot of things, but generally dislike the entire system.

“I’m here because there’s no better time,” said Emily, a 20-some woman who left her full-time job in the New York City area (she didn’t name the profession) and joined the McPherson camp. She was one of the 62 people arrested last Wednesday when they ignored the frigid rain to employ tents, other debris and their own bodies to block four intersections along K Street.

Emily is passionate, but vague.

“This world is backwards, and we don’t live within our means,” she said. “There are enough resources in the world, but they are not allocated properly.”

Good points, but she didn’t offer anything concrete to address them, saying only that politics is “a bunch of people talking about what should happen instead of trying to get stuff done.”

That’s what critics say about the Occupy movement, and Emily agreed that her description could apply to its general assembly meetings. But she hopes the GAs will develop into something more effective.

When McPherson does get stuff done, it’s usually attention-getting rather than problem-solving. Blocking K Street was a major publicity coup. So was assembling, in the middle of the night, a wooden barn-like structure and digging in, Alamo-style, until cops pulled the last holdouts from the roof, but only after one of them peed off of said roof.

McPherson protestors arrested Dec. 4, after defying orders to leave a barn erected in the middle of the night.

“The problem is, these young kids, they’re so obstinate. They don’t have a clear goal,” said attorney Ann C. Wilcox, with the National Lawyers Guild. That’s the group of lime-green-capped volunteers who observe protests for signs of police abuse, help arrestees through the legal process, and file legal claims, such as temporary restraining orders against evictions.

At the time, she was watching cops in a cherry picker plucking protestors off the roof of the barn. A while earlier, she’d been inside, trying, without a smidgen of success, to broker a deal between the police and protestors.

I’d met Wilcox the day before in the other DC camp at Freedom Plaza, a desolate but very visible slab of marble and granite along Pennsylvania Avenue. We were sitting in a classroom-like row of chairs arrayed on the stones and facing a whiteboard. Just a few minutes earlier, Margret Flowers, a pediatrician who is now a full-time advocate for single-payer healthcare, had given a workshop on the spot. Over a PA system (no people’s microphone here), she outlined the concept how “pillars of support” in society give a political regime its power. The class took notes and brainstormed strategies for reforming these pillars.

Anything like that exercise would be unthinkable at McPherson Square.

Flowers works closely with Kevin Zeese, an attorney and activist since the 1970s on everything from supporting marijuana legalization to opposing the war in Afghanistan. He has co-founded several non-profit political organizations, including It’s Our Economy, which he and Flowers created. Zeese was press secretary and spokesperson for Ralph Nader during the 2004 presidential campaign, and the two men remain close friends.

An activist since the 1970s, attorney Kevin Zeese is an intellectual leader of the Freedom Plaza camp.

Flowers, Zeese and the other founders of the Freedom Plaza camp have radical views and have been arrested for civil disobedience. They are also highly organized in a way that the McPherson crew finds creepy. One McPherson member called the Freedom Plaza occupiers “professional activists.”

Even their occupation was well planned, going back to April -– long before “Occupy Wall Street” had entered the popular lexicon. (Their first public call to occupy came in June.) Originally called “October 2011,” and beginning on the 6th of that month, it was an anti-war and “economic justice” occupation swept into the Occupy wave.

It even had a permit to settle in Freedom Plaza –- though just for four days. After squatting past that point, the organizers have negotiated with the National Park Service a four-month extension that runs to the end of February.

Despite their differences, the two D.C. occupations are united against common rivals that they believe would co-opt them –- like Democratic-leaning political groups MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream, a new organization led by Obama Administration veteran Van Jones. An editorial in Freedom Plaza’s newspaper, the Occupied Washington Post, read: “Rebuild the Dream is more of the same that has been seen over and over from groups like MoveOn and Campaign for America’s Future, elect Democrats is their mantra. It is their only program. And, it is bankrupt.”

The two camps are also wary of labor unions, especially the massive Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. While not the only group behind Take Back The Capitol, SEIU was the most visible. With strict hierarchies, unions like the SEIU represent the unequal “system” that Occupy opposes. Some have even called the union’s powerful leaders part of “the 1 percent” that rules the country. The ties between organized labor and the Democrats are also odious to the Occupy activists in both camps, who are disgusted with all political parties in the U.S.

But at least some occupiers don’t want to alienate potential allies, either.

Not all the Freedom Plaza occupiers are middle-aged. Brendan Mannion enjoys some sun after a cold, wet night last week.

So the Freedom Plaza general assembly faced a difficult debate on Dec. 3 when Kevin Zeese announced that the SEIU had offered to make a donation to the group. Facing a difficult winter and in desperate need of supplies, some people advocated taking the money, as long as they made clear that there were “no strings attached.”

Others, including Zeese, felt that it was impossible to take money and remain independent.

“You look at Obama taking money from Goldman Sachs,” he said. “Does that taint him? I think it does.”

On Wednesday, the SEIU said that it would be sending a check, but the Freedom Plaza group had already decided to reject it. “We are happy to work with them on common areas of interest, but financial independence will make us more credible advocates,” said Zeese in an e-mail to Wired.

Others word their views more strongly.

“All this is a Democratic campaign. It’s all union,” said James DeVoe, who handles new-occupier intake at Freedom Plaza. “We’re trying to fix government, not vote for the same thing.”

An SEIU member who asked that his name not be used had a different perspective, noting that his organization has been working for years for political reform, and it hasn’t co-opted Occupy. Take Back The Capitol had been planned since August, he said, when Occupy Wall Street was just a concept. Instead, Occupy is taking over, with the public considering any political action to be part of “Occupy.”

In contrast to the Occupation shantytowns, the SEIU erected nearly circus-size, heated tents on the National Mall. And it paid to fly and bus in supporters, including members from other occupations. It even put some up in hotels.

But several drifted away from the union. Devoe said that about 40 occupiers ditched the SEIU and joined the Freedom Plaza camp for the week. And I met at least a dozen people, most from Kansas City, at McPherson Square. To some, there was a huge disconnect between the SEIU and OWS, especially at K Street. “I think it’s funny that SEIU bussed us in here … and they didn’t expect arrests,” said Melissa Stiehler, one of the KC occupiers.

The K Street action may also mark a major shift in the movement -– winning over police officers. According to Stiehler, two of the arresting cops who took her in confided that they would like to come back when they are off duty to take part in the protests. (Of course, that could also be an undercover strategy.) Her boyfriend Jeremy Al-Haj says that other cops told him “We’ll see you soon, and keep up the good work.” And according to one of their friends, who goes by Marci, a female cop said, “What you did today has really made a difference. You got a lot of people’s attention.”

The SEIU erected huge tents on the National Mall for Take Back The Capitol campaign.

Discounting the possibility of a Kansas City cabal, I later heard roughly the same thing from someone entirely different. I met Carlos Villalobos of Occupy Houston in an SEIU-dominated march on the Capitol. He says that four cops told him “We support what you’d doing. Keep doing it. Keep it up.”

The DC police have been working without a contract for four years. They might well have “99 percent” gripes, too. But actually admitting them would be a turning point in the occupy movement. For what it’s worth, nearly all the protestors who were arrested report virtually no violence from the DC and National Park Service police, other than the inevitable from getting grabbed and cuffed.

The National Park Service police, responsible for the locations of both camps, have been especially tolerant, even supportive. Their policy allows tents on parkland, for example, but only for 24-hour vigils. Clearly, each of the hundreds of people in D.C. hasn’t been awake for over nine weeks straight. And one day, learning that press would be visiting Freedom Plaza at 5 a.m., NPS officers woke protestors a half hour earlier so no one would see them sleeping.

The improving relationship between occupiers and cops is an odd contrast to the strained ties between the McPherson and Freedom Plaza camps. Meanwhile, tensions between Occupiers and labor unions like SEIU, as well as with established political groups like MoveOn, may preview the tumult of the coming elections.

If D.C. is an indicator, instead of sweeping in an new activist tide, Occupy may find itself caught in turbulent, but politically insignificant eddies.

Photos: Sean Captain/Wired.com