When I was a teenager, I would look longingly back at the 1960s and truly believe that I was born in the wrong era. Of course, I was deeply appreciative that the 90s were calm: we weren’t in a war, race riots were few and far between, and many more people had civil rights than were available then. But at the same time, something in me longed for that conflict, for that opportunity to march and protest against a deep hatred. It was similar to the way that people romanticize World War II. It was a good war, a necessary war, and wouldn’t it have been great to fight the Nazis? I wanted to feel like I was part of something bigger, doing something that was no doubt making a difference.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved beyond that viewpoint. First, I recognized that my selfish need for heroism is a hell of a less lot important than the fact that progress had been made. Second, I came to realize that the fight at that time must have felt more hopeless and difficult than it seems in hindsight. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed far before he saw a good deal of his leadership’s fruit. In the scheme of the wholesale cultural change they sought, even their biggest results must have seemed like the smallest of steps forward. Also, as much as I like to think I would be readily arrested and even physically abused for what I believe in, I can’t definitively say I’d have that level of courage. No one really knows until they’re in the middle of it.
Lastly, I’ve become far less enamored with protest as a tactic for making change. I’ve been to my share of rallies, especially for climate change. From marching through downtown London to huddling in front of the U.S. Capital, I’ve spent time and plenty of energy participating in protests. (For some reason, all of the climate change marches had horrible weather, except oddly, the one in England.) And I have personally seen no impact from my participation. The British march, one of the biggest, most diverse climate change protests ever at that time had almost no media coverage. Climate change legislation has failed over and over again in the U.S. Congress. President Obama has made some significant progress in the executive branch, but his team is being fought on every single advance, even the obvious ones that save people money. Every time a new report about climate change comes out or an extreme weather event devastates another city, I sigh in frustration.
In contrast, when I do projects that move my community towards social and environmental sustainability, I feel satisfied in a way that I’ve never been after a protest. Teaching children about growing herbs, building a composter, leading a community bike ride, or sharing tomatoes from my garden all have a concrete impact. Perhaps the accomplishments are small, but they are real.
So when the Occupy Together movement (Occupy Wall St, DC, etc.) started, I was ambivalent. On one hand, I strongly supported their aims of decreasing the economic disparity of the U.S. On the other hand, I was oddly jealous. They were getting media attention; they were having an influence on the national discourse. What did they do that we couldn’t for climate change? Why wasn’t I involved in this? Despite the fact that I was glad they were bringing attention to such an issue, my selfish frustration kept flaring up.
As the movement has grown over the past few weeks, my respect has deepened and much of that internal conflict has waned. They’ve certainly shown their commitment, far exceeding that of any one march or protest. They’ve successfully tapped into a societal sentiment that we never could in the climate change movement. Unlike the amorphous nature of climate change, they can point to a system that is clearly oppressing people in concrete ways and draw on the discontent with it.
As such, I decided last week that it was finally time for me to get my butt down to D.C. and physically become part of the Occupy Together movement, if only for one day. McPherson Square, one of the two protest sites in D.C., is right near Chris’s work, so I walked with him to work and then beyond to the site.
What struck me immediately was how organized it is. As described well in this Washington City Paper article, the tent city had some planners involved. As I walked into the main entrance, I was greeted with a food tent on your left, which was serving lunch buffet-style. Not being a permanent resident, I didn’t take any, but the rice/bean/salsa/corn mix looked pretty tasty. Just past the food tent was an information tent, with brochures, an email signup list, and a can for donations.
Approaching the statue of General McPherson, there was a medical tent on the left, which was appropriately decorated for the season. Off to the left were most of the camper’s tents. Taking the right pathway, there was a lending library with a number of respectable books (including a copy of my friend from Ecolocity’s book, which he donated) and a few publications of dubious value (like one that said AIDS wasn’t real). It seemed appropriate that in a city of so many educated people with many free museums, that a library was available to anyone and everyone.
The layout, combined with a surprising respect for institutions, made it a very D.C. protest. Right at the entrance of the camp, there were two typed laminated sheets of paper stapled to a sign, describing a list of instructions from the National Parks Service, who officially own the park. They include things like, “Respect the statue of McPherson” and “Portable toilets are available.” And indeed, the statue of McPherson was very clean, with the grass around it nearly untouched. In another area, there was a sign asking people not to step on the grass, as the protestors had respectfully reseeded it after inadvertently destroying it. Similarly, there was a very clear system of self-governance, with a set of group rules near the Information Table. The rules basically boiled down to “Respect other people in every way possible,” but I was glad to see that they existed. Sometimes these movements can be derailed by macho jerks who want get arrested just to prove how tough they are, making it difficult for anyone to make a positive impact. In particular, I liked that they explicitly stated solidarity with individual blue-collar members of the police, even if they had an issue with the system. I heard that same sentiment about the federal government when talking to a fellow protestor. So often, frustration with the system can translate to unearned anger against people who are working within the system to fix it, so it was good to not have everyone tarred with the same brush.
In addition to showing basic kindness, it’s also very clear that this system is paying off for the protestors in a positive manner. So far, the National Parks Service, who controls the park, has been happy to cooperate with the protestors. As one of the normal rules of McPherson Square is “No camping,” the Parks Service technically has the right to kick them out. Them choosing not to makes me personally feel good as a federal employee.
But as organized as the camp was, there were also little blessings that didn’t quite fit in, for the better. My favorite part of the whole camp was a tent that was completely empty save a statue of St. Francis. When I saw it, I cocked my head and stared for a minute, trying to figure out if my identification was correct. St. Francis, the patron saint of the environment who was deeply devoted to caring for the poor, is one of my spiritual heroes, but I didn’t exactly expect to see a lot of Catholic saint statues there. I peered my head in, feeling like an intruder into some makeshift yet ancient shrine. I stood in front of the statue, smiled slightly, and recited part of “St. Francis’s prayer,” which I say every morning: “Father, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon…” The presence of that statue seemed to say to me, “You are right to be here. You belong here.”
As much as I enjoyed walking around the camp and talking to its residents, I was also there to participate in an action. The action scheduled for that day was a march against student debt to the offices of Sallie Mae. Although I managed to get through school with a minimum of debt due to a combination of generous parents, very generous grandparents, wedding money, and work reimbursement, I definitely sympathize with those weighed down. Besides the fact that it keeps so much money out of the give and take of the economy, student debt also stifles socially-conscious work and entrepreneurship. Most non-profits and even government jobs pay poorly compared to the private sector, and if you’re bogged down with thousands in student loans you just can’t afford to take those jobs. This is especially true of positions that require post-undergraduate education, like doctors and lawyers. Similarly, promising business students can’t take the chance to open their own businesses, keeping our society from developing the next set of innovative thinkers like Steve Jobs. Waiting for the march to start, I talked to a number of students and saw not only their surface anger, but also a deep fear. Considering how long it took me to find a job, which was far before the recession, I completely understood. I was very glad to be standing there with them in solidarity.
Starting at McPherson Square, we marched down 14th St. and onto Pennsylvania Ave. Although our numbers weren’t huge, we had enough people to thoroughly block up half of the street. And yet – most of the drivers weren’t annoyed! They actually supported us! The fact that people were giving us the thumbs up, honking in support (yes, actually support), and smiling at us truly attested to the cultural zeitgeist that the Occupy Together movement has tapped into.
We even had the police on our side, which led to the sole somewhat jerky thing I saw a protestor do. The police provided an escort, which was surprising considering that they’ve cut back on them lately. Then, as one of the police cars tried to get to an emergency – I could actually see the smoke from a fire up the street – one of the protestors kept standing in his way. Considering that the police were protecting us, I couldn’t see the point of needlessly blocking him from getting where he needed to be. Like the protestors in New York City who were using local business’ bathrooms to clean up without buying anything, it was an excellent illustration of why one should listen to Wil Wheaton: “Don’t be a dick!”
Beyond that one guy, everyone else was very respectful. The crowd also showed far more diversity than you usually see in these protests – an enthusiastic young black woman led most of the chants. Although there were quite a number of them, one we used several times was “When students and workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
When we got to the Sallie Mae office, we stood around and chanted for a while, with some of the protestors demanding to be let in the building. They planned to occupy the lobby until they got arrested or otherwise kicked out. The rest of us supported them through chanting and “decorating” the outside of the building with letters to Sallie Mae requesting forgiveness for student debt. We also did the “human mic,” where the crowd echoes back to the person what they’re just said. Hearing the amplification and combination of so many voices was empowering and rewarding.
I stayed for about 20 more minutes, feeling satisfied with my participation. (Plus, I was getting cold.) In terms of the march, I think it’s really smart of Occupy DC/K St. to focus their actions on specific issues like student debt. It allows them to answer the criticism of “what are they asking for?” demand by demand. In addition, it also helps them recruit participants outside of the camp to join them in actions that are personally important. The more people involved the better!
Overall, I’m grateful for the Occupy Together movement. Being a part of it, I realized that they’ve moved beyond mere protest into building a viewpoint that is deeper and more fundamental. I’m especially glad to see how they’re changing the conversation around poverty, debt, the economy, and most importantly, how we value people. The idea that people are worth more than their bank accounts is so fundamental and one that nearly all people would agree with, but is still discounted by society every day. I was glad that at least for one day, I got to be part of a group truly shifting that mindset.