Occupy Wall Street, the movement, came to D.C. today

"View of McPherson Square" by dionhinchcliffe on flickr
"View of McPherson Square" by dionhinchcliffe on flickr

With nowhere near the numbers of Occupy Wall Street over the past week or so, and no notoriety yet, D.C. launched its occupation today at McPherson Square, attracting about 125 people throughout the day, and facilitators held two general assembly meetings, one this morning and another in the late afternoon. I was at the late afternoon meeting with 75 other people on the edge of McPherson Square at the corner of Vermont Avenue and 15th Street NW.

The occupation continues tomorrow – use the Vermont Avenue exit of McPherson Square metro, with GA meetings scheduled for 12 noon and 6 p.m.

Edit: Police sometimes move #occupydc to Franklin Park at K and 14th.

The group is a mix of people, though there are more whites than blacks, Asians and Hispanics (apologies if I’m missing anyone), and more young than old people. Marri, a University of Maryland student, told me the Occupy DC group began just about a week ago. Three people got together, set up a web site, and now there are about 20 people officially on board with the organization.

Another DC occupation, scheduled to begin this Thursday, Oct. 6, at Freedom Plaza, has been in the planning stages for months.  One look at their web site and you know it’s going to be bigger. The subject of the Freedom Plaza occupation didn’t come up at the GA meeting this afternoon, but Caty, who is manning the Tweet reports on occupydc.org site, told me the McPherson Square people are communicating with the organizers of the Freedom Plaza occupation.

“We reached out to them,” she said, “but didn’t get a response until after Occupy Wall Street started to grow.”  The two groups are communicating now, Caty said, and it’s awesome. “We hope to feed into each other. We’ll go there and they can come here.”  Freedom Plaza is at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, about six blocks away from McPherson Square.

Caty said the Freedom Plaza folks have a different organizational structure, and are more about anti-war. “We’re more money and politics,” she said, and quickly added that she’s not speaking for Occupy DC as a whole.  Determining the mission of the group is a complicated undertaking, requiring a consensus discussion, and one that the GA took on in a 30 minute session at the late afternoon meeting.

Earlier in the day, a member of the Occupy DC facilitator team conducted an informal survey of attendees asking them their reasons for being at the event. She got responses such as empower ordinary people, to make a better world, change the narrative, bribing politicians is not free speech, repeal corporation personhood, increase awareness of corporate influence and the impact it has on people’s lives, social justice, network with like-minded people, and because the TARP protests fizzled out.

Taking these comments as a starting point, someone noted these ideas are not wildly divergent. “The narrative we want people to know is that 1 percent of earners in this country are doing well, 99 percent of earners are not doing well.” He advocated the group adopt three broad areas for critiques: economic inequality, political inequality, and tolerated stagnation of the economy.  He also suggested that “people dress to look normal” to avoid the kind of “hippie” publicity Occupy Wall Street got.  Looking around, though, there wasn’t a non-normal or hippie-looking person in the crowd.

The group seemed to agree the 99 percent of us who are struggling is an idea that people can get around and is a good recruiting tool, but, as someone else pointed out, 99 percent is not sufficient. “We must be prepared with facts to answer the question of what does that mean.”  People also liked the 99 percent and wealth disparity theme as a way to maintain cohesiveness with other cities in the movement.  Someone else said, “People are trying to define our movement as resentful of the rich.” That’s not the way she sees it: “I see the 1 percent as having short-circuited our government.”

Compassion for others, building community – meeting other people and working together, using Open Source technology to suggest ideas and build on them, fighting generalized fear, misery, and a sense of powerlessness – these are the underlying issues. The group seemed to agree that “no policy outcomes” would be the mission of the occupation, but somehow we have to get past the misery.  Somewhere between compassion and policy outcomes, there has to be a middle ground, but it has to be a concise mission.

There may be grievances and a set of facts to back them up, rather than demands. “We make demands when we have leverage, when we have lots and lots of people involved.  We don’t want to make decisions today that take away from tomorrow.” There will be more GAs on the topic of mission and grievances and demands.

Only a few of those present planned to sleep at the occupation site. The facilitators took care to note that D.C. has a law prohibiting sleeping in the parks. You can sleep on the sidewalks around the periphery of the park, but you cannot block any sidewalk access to the park. Organizers of the Freedom Plaza occupation have noted that the group would decide by consensus on the first day of that occupation whether to sleep in the park and risk arrest or not. Marri said, of the McPherson Square occupation, “We’ll get more people to sleep out. They’ll line the sidewalk around the park. At some point maybe there will be enough people sleeping out, or the cops won’t interfere, or, I don’t know what will happen.”

There were two police cars, I noticed, parked across the street from McPherson Square during the GA. I wondered about them, but right as the meeting was breaking up it became clear why they were there. A motorcade was about to pass by – a stream of police cars, black SUVs and a limousine sandwiched in between, possibly transporting the President. It’s a common occurrence in D.C. The group acknowledged the procession in hoots and hollers. If only the motorcade would stop and listen.

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