While I like to do theory and analysis, I also think it’s really useful to read first-hand account of things, without any kind of angle packaged alongside it. So here is my report from events in DC yesterday (October 6).
Yesterday I went to both rallies sporting the #occupy brand here in Washington D.C. Yes, there are two separate events, located a few blocks from each other. Here’s a report, for what it’s worth. Not using names, because I never found them out or I forgot them, or maybe people don’t want their names out.
Stop The Machine AKA #occupydc AKA october2011 was at Freedom Plaza. From what I can figure out, it was a previously scheduled antiwar protest to mark the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. It then added on an “occupy” signifier to get media attention. (The first thing you learn about demonstrations is that the biggest issue for organizers is getting media attention). The crowd was what I’ve come to expect as a “standard” left demo crowd: aging hippies and college students. A few anarchisty-looking people, a few Ron Paul supporters (including, bizarrely, some in Code Pink shirts), a few silly costumes. Folk songs and spoken word antiwar performances from a stage. People had set up some tents too, but this was actually not designed for an occupation. It was a typical rally with a stage, PA system and a permit. The use of “occupy” had worked though — there was lots of media, including foreign press. The numbers when I was there — noon to 1:30 — I’d put at about 500 tops.
I’d done my homework, so I knew that the actual occupation was at McPherson Square. This was occupydc.org/#occupyKSt. Confusing — clearly two orgs were competing over twitter accounts and webpages. I walked over with some friends. The weather was beautiful. At the park, maybe 30 people were milling about, and some more were sitting in circles in meetings of some sort. Almost all were in a demographic you might call “college/post-college.” Several people with “punk” looks. I recognized a couple from a Wisconsin solidarity rally a few months back, where we occupied a lobbyist building for an hour. People like me, I suppose — hear the call, show up. I asked how the occupation was going. Immediately someone there asked if we could help get a WiFi hub for the square. We couldn’t do that, so he asked if we could help in other ways. My friends didn’t seem sure, but I said ok (maybe we should have done a consensus finger-waggling thing), and the guy ushered us into the Starbucks across the street to do a “social media assault.” We didn’t have any computers, so the guy borrowed a notebook computer from someone sitting in the circle. When we got there, he asked what each of us were good at, which is kind of a weird question. We were all Ph.D. students, so of course we can’t do anything! I offered that I could do social media, and got on the notebook to send some tweets. I noticed the guy was very conscientious about listening to each person and made an effort to demonstrate that what people said was being considered. It turned out he was some kind of professional organizer from Boston. I asked if local businesses were involved. A couple pizza places were donating food. I said we could try to get stores to donate art supplies, and maybe get some books and start a library. There was an Utrecht nearby, so I wrote down their contact info in my (paper) notebook. I asked if they had reached out to any DC community groups, but they hadn’t. I looked up the info for a few groups and wrote them down as well.
A couple more of who seemed to be organizing stuff came into the Starbucks. One asked if we had patronized the shop, which we had. The other guy said “I think they like us here, anyway.” He took his notebook computer back and borrowed a pen and my notebook and started talking to people on his phone. Someone mentioned some unions wanted to come by. A couple of my friends had to go; one stayed behind and went on the Utrecht mission. I was tasked with starting up another Twitter account — they couldn’t find the person running the @OccupyKSt or the @Occupy_DC twitter accounts, and didn’t have contact info for them. There was definitely some annoyance at how the protest had taken some of the best twitter handles and hashtags. I started the account, but ended up misspelling “McPhersonSq” as “MacPhersonSq.” I sent some tweets anyway. I was using the Boston guy’s iPad at this point — my first time really using one, even though I’d been designated the social media person at that point. Weird, especially since Steve Jobs was taking up all the headlines that day.
I received a tweet from a friend who works for an activist group in DC that a march was going on at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a couple blocks away. I suggested we try to get some people from there to join us in the square. People were involved in other things though, or just didn’t know what to do. Before we could figure something out, the march came down K Street, right past the square. The Boston guy and I went out of the Starbucks to hail the march, and let them know about the occupation they were walking past. A middle aged guy in a suit asked if he could spend the night there. I said yes. He then asked me how to do it and I told him I didn’t know, I had just gotten there an hour before, but he could ask some other people. This turned out to be a pretty common occurrence: people asking for info, being directed vaguely about. This is to be expected from the Occupy Together tactics, and I wouldn’t categorize it as a liability necessarily. But a lot of people get pretty uncomfortable when there isn’t a clear organization “in charge” of things. Or at least providing information. The occupation didn’t have any committees at that point, but an information table would have probably helped.
A day-labor organizer stopped to talk; she held ESL workshops pretty close to where I live, so I got her contact info (how DC!). I asked her if she thought day laborers would want to come to the occupation. She said no, not at all. I told her I wasn’t sure about being part of a movement that’s all college kids. She didn’t think the occupation would really get beyond that.
My friend came back from Utrecht with markers, posterboard and butcher paper. He had to go, but he said the store was pretty enthusiastic about donating supplies. It seemed like a good strategy to follow up on — soliciting donations from local small businesses — and I was kind of surprised no one at the occupation had tried to do that beyond pizza places. I met some people who had come from #OccupyWallSt in New York to help set up a livestream for DC. Their cameraman was back at Freedom Plaza though, and, once again, no one had his phone number. After getting a physical description and his location, I biked over. There weren’t too many people with bikes, and it seemed like having cavalry to forage and courier would be useful. I couldn’t find the cameraman, but I found two other occupation people also looking for him. I said I would bike back to say we couldn’t find them. I gave one guy my phone number so he could call me and I could let them know what was happening at the square. He wrote it down on his hand. He never called.
I went back to McPherson Square. This was just before 5, so I got to enjoy some nice downtown traffic riding, which I actually enjoy. The cameraman was there, and the New York guy told me to talk to him about setting it up. So I did. He said everything was already set up. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do after that — would the occupation run it itself somehow? Did they have cameras? Did I just become the head of the media team? I tried to find the guy who borrowed my notebook, since it had all my school notes and papers in it, and because he seemed to be in charge. Not that he was commanding people, necessarily, but he was definitely leading stuff up and more involved than other people. The whole “leaderless” thing seems like more branding to me, some people do more organizing and seem to have more experience and others defer to them, but it didn’t seem undemocratic or hierarchical.
At around 5 we set off on a march for the Newseum. In DC you don’t need permits to march, just notify the cops and they block off streets. Which they did. The march had maybe 100 people, and went by the Freedom Plaza event, where we got high fives, raised fists, and a few extra marchers. We chanted things like “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out” and “We! Are! The 99%!” A few times I changed “we” to “you” because that made it seem like the spectators — of which there were many, armed with camera phones — were involved. It made the chants ring a less petulant and more inclusive tone, I think.
It’s interesting to me that so many people take pictures of marches, but don’t feel like they can join in. I remember when I took a class on a field trip to a May Day march in Chicago. My students were actually nervous, like they thought people would be upset that they were there for some reason. Like they didn’t belong. Really, the thing every demonstration needs, more than media attention, is people. Bodies on the ground. I’ve never seen a demo that turned people away. I wonder if any of those students went to other demonstrations afterwards. A lot of them seemed to have fun.
It was about 20 minutes to get to the Newseum. The cops blocked several intersections for us to walk past. A guy, professionally dressed, carrying the main banner, thanked the police at each intersection. At times the march took up the sidewalk and a lane in the street. I wondered if it was a good idea to mess up people’s rush hour commutes, though we did get a few honks of support. A WASP couple brisked through with the lady sneering, “We’re trying to walk here!” I thought I should say “Yeah, well, we’re trying to establish democracy here!” but didn’t. At the Newseum there was more chanting. The guy from New York said that Dick Cheney was inside doing some think tank event, and that we should have the General Assembly there, to have a People’s Think Tank. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to do something or if it was just chatting. I looked for the Boston organizer guy to see what he thought, but he was on the other side of the crowd, leading chants. An older man on a bike started chanting anti-war slogans, but the crowd pointedly did not take them up, instead tittering a bit. Another guy pointed to all the day’s headlines (the Newseum displays the day’s papers from every state and around the world out front) and saying that the Wall Street Journal hadn’t said anything about the occupations. Someone started unrolling the butcher paper and people started writing on it in chalk. I didn’t see what it said beyond things like “love” and “peace.” Before I could get a better look, they rolled it back up and began marching back to McPherson. We had been in front of the Newseum for maybe 10 minutes. I figured it was to get the scheduled general assembly rolling. Nevertheless, I was pretty confused. I didn’t really know why we went to the Newseum at all. I was tired and hungry, having not eaten anything all day. Since I was closer to where I live than back at McPherson, I biked back home instead of following the march. I didn’t tell anyone — I just left. Maybe I should have said I was going. I got home around 6:15 and let my dog out.
Thanks for writing this up, Gavin. I hope we get more minute-by-minute accounts like this.
I liked the tone of this account and I liked these observations/descriptions:
“The crowd was what I’ve come to expect as a “standard” left demo crowd: aging hippies and college students. A few anarchisty-looking people, a few Ron Paul supporters (including, bizarrely, some in Code Pink shirts), a few silly costumes. Folk songs and spoken word antiwar performances from a stage. People had set up some tents too, but this was actually not designed for an occupation.”
“When we got there, he asked what each of us were good at, which is kind of a weird question. We were all Ph.D. students, so of course we can’t do anything!”
“A few times I changed “we” to “you” because that made it seem like the spectators — of which there were many, armed with camera phones — were involved. It made the chants ring a less petulant and more inclusive tone, I think.”
“Almost all were in a demographic you might call “college/post-college.” Several people with “punk” looks. I recognized a couple from a Wisconsin solidarity rally a few months back, where we occupied a lobbyist building for an hour. ***People like me, I suppose — hear the call, show up.***”
Since I was closer to where I live than back at McPherson, I biked back home instead of following the march. I didn’t tell anyone — I just left. Maybe I should have said I was going.
Taken from an article in the Summer 2011 Jacobin concerning the failures of the left in recent times, I couldn’t agree more with this sentence, “…the Right has so far had the initiative because it has successfully piloted a series of ideological articulations that speak to a certain neoliberal “common sense” and thus plausibly explain and offer solutions to the crisis.”
If I understand Gramsci correctly, culture needs to change before politics can- and the cultural climate today hasn’t… Maybe it will soon… but that’s why people laugh at protests and take pictures. People are split. They want change because their current situtuations probably leave much to be desired but at the same time believe its common sense that things don’t change (and “people don’t change”) so protest becomes pointless.
When I was in nyc and here in philly, it seems to me that the protesters are mostly laughed at- and of course people keep asking “who’s your leader?” and “what do you want?”
I forgot, I also liked the, “I’m trying to establish democracy here” line. Still laughing at that one.