Occupy DC – October 2011



Mookychick journalist gives eyewitness account of Occupy DC and the protesters camped out at McPherson park. She doesn’t see it a repeat of Arab Springs.

Chances are you’ve already heard about the Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Occupy Everywhere. If you’re not privy to the happenings, Wikipedia, The New York Times and the BBC have some fine, relatively unbiased information. Basically, I’m not going to delve into the backstory and motivations. That’s already been done. What I am going to talk about is what I saw and heard at McPherson Square, where Occupy DC is camped out, and what I think it might mean.

A short autobio: I moved to Washington D.C. two months ago. I am a freshman at a college in the city and when I graduate, I will owe over $100,000 in student debt. I consider myself a socialist while accepting the possibility that if I had enough money to finance my education sans worries, I might not be a socialist. While I agree with many of the statements being made by the protesters, I have chosen to remain an objective observer. So that’s me.

And then there’s them, the people I talked to when I went to McPherson Square 8th October. Some had been there for a few hours; some had been there since the beginning. The park had been occupied for a week before I visited. My gut reaction was to jump in right away, but I held off because I wanted to see how the situation developed before I spent four dollars on metro fare getting to the park. I wanted to see if these folks were all rhetoric and no action, or if there really was something serious behind the festival atmosphere in the park? After a week had passed and the gathering continued to grow, I decided it was time to check things out.

McPherson is a smallish park surrounded by tall office buildings and places where office workers can go for lunch. The park was crowded when I arrived around seven in the evening; a graduate student informed me that the number of occupiers ebbed and flowed throughout the day, peaking from the end of the standard workday through the early evening. Given evidence that many of the protestors were employed, I was not sure what to think about Occupy DC soliciting for donations of food and camping gear via Twitter. It seemed a bit selfish to ask for those things if it could be afforded by one’s self, especially as those donations could have gone to a food pantry or charity assisting the nearly twenty percent of D.C. citizens who live in poverty. My misgivings aside, the call for donations had been answered, resulting in a well-stocked food station.

A young man making sandwiches told me that the food was freely given to both the political occupiers and those older occupiers, those without homes. Homeless persons, the sandwich maker said, were fully accepted as part of the group, and protesters were encouraged to connect with them in a meaningful way. Looking at the people sitting on benches along the edges of the square, silently watching the rousing rally in the center, I wondered if the homeless persons felt the same way. (I did not inquire, as I feared I would be too clumsy to ask someone about their housing and lack thereof without being offensive.)

Next, I met a grandmother with her granddaughter of nine years. They were both participating in their first protest. The girl told me about how she thought this was genius and was eager to raise awareness of the problems face by real people in our country. Many others with whom I spoke echoed the same idea: they were here not because they had a specific plan of action they wanted implemented but because they just wanted something to change. This lack of a defined goal weakens the protest, yet I feel it is an accurate representation of what the average American feels.

Clearly, our problems could be worse. America is not Libya or Syria. Though inspired by Arab Spring, I believe that to compare the Occupy movement to Arab Spring would be disrespectful to those who lost their lives during the Arab Spring revolutions. Yet we still do have problems, we Americans – we who like to think of ourselves as the best and brightest, the problem-solvers of the world. There is immense frustration felt when living in a country built on the principles of democracy and watching the divide between the rich and the poor become a veritable chasm. Anger at not being able to afford the college education necessary to land a job that will pay more than minimum wage. It’s no longer enough to write letters to our representatives in Congress and receive, several weeks later, standardized responses signed with a stamp. There is a need for change and, I think, a need to prove that we, the people, are not powerless.

That’s what I think this Occupy movement is really about – reasserting the idea that in a democracy, the citizens give the government power and not the other way. I am not confident that Occupy will achieve the tangible results a social sciences professor told me would be necessary to end the movement, but I believe they are doing a brilliant job of forcing government and business figures alike to think about how their actions affect others. You can dismiss a table of statistics, but you can’t dismiss a chanting crowd thousands strong.