October 24, 2011

Occupy K St - Morning in the Park

A week ago, I visited Occupy K St. at McPherson Square in Washington, DC. Of all of the Occupys turning up in major cities around the country, it's seemed to me that DC - both the occupation at McPhearson and the other one at Freedom Plaza - have gotten very little media attention. As a DC girl, this annoyed me, so I went up to the city over my fall break to check it out myself.

I got there first thing in the morning, before the occupiers had really woken up. I wandered over to the Information tent, where a gentleman who introduced himself to me as the infamous Bear asked me what I liked to do. When I said blogging, he sent me to the Media tent... And when I found nothing to do at the Media tent, I followed the smell of coffee to the Kitchen tent. There was water for tea about to boil, and I overheard the man staffing the tent mention to someone else that dishes needed to be done, so I asked, "Can I have some tea, and can I do the dishes?"

After jokingly checking my qualifications (I assured them that, as a girl scout, I am a master of outdoor dishes doing), he had me filling the wash bin with water from the water fountain and washing the previous night's dishes. As I was filling the plastic water jug, Bear stopped me to warn me that, "This is a revolution. You may be called to lay down your life at any time." I thanked him for the advice, finished the dishes, got my tea, and found a seat on a bench to write down my first impressions.

What I expected to be a brief writing session turned into several hours - by now the occupiers were waking up, and I couldn't get more than a paragraph into my thoughts before someone came over to strike up a conversation. I talked to a man from Louisiana who'd responded to Hurricane Katrina by stamping anti-consumerist messages on thousands of dollar bills and putting them into circulation; another man showed me articles about Mitt Romney's mother's involvement with the "negro problem" in the Mormon church decades ago stuck between the pages of a 60-year-old Time magazine book on religion; a mental health professional who was also one of the first occupiers explained the neurological problems of one of the homeless men in the park in great detail and how he was trying to help him. "Anywhere else he'd get long-term care," the guy said, taking a long drag of his cigarette. "Here he's homeless."

Having been so welcomed into conversation, I felt empowered to strike up conversations myself. The quiet place I finally found to get some writing done was at the center of the square, which was ringed by signs, and passers-by through the park often stopped to read. I asked a man what he thought when he was reading the sign next to me and looking confused, and we ended up chatting about the role of government in social services, the responsibility of the banks for making bad policies and the government for failing to regulate them, and the purpose of the occupation. We both agreed that, while we had different views of what the problem was, the occupation was a good thing. It was creating a community in the middle of the city, raising awareness about political issues and feeding the homeless.

But as the day went on, I came up against the problem that Occupy DC didn't seem to be doing much more than that. They'd had some successful marches, but the Monday I visited was quiet - the scheduled teach-in with the ACLU never happened, and the action planned for that afternoon didn't really seem to get off the ground either. I overheard people who'd come from Occupy Wall Street or who'd been involved in DC for a while complaining about the lack of energy and action; one man, who I worked with in the kitchen, said that he'd come here to protest, not to make sandwiches. Others seemed to like the more toned-down atmosphere of DC; I heard comments that New York had grown too big, or too confrontational, and they liked the DC occupation because there were more places to get involved and a strict rule of non-violence.

And there certainly was room to get involved in DC. Just a few hours into being there I found myself handling donations to the kitchen, explaining our signs to passers-by, and participating in an impromptu yoga class. But I'm not sure that's enough. We certainly attracted a lot of attention - around lunch time and rush hour there was a steady stream of people walking through the park, reading all the signs and asking questions, and there was a journalist for every three occupiers - but it was hard to answer the question "what are we doing?" when we didn't seem to be sure of it ourselves.


libractivist said...

Thanks for this.
Although I assumed there was an Occupy presence in DC, this is the first I hear about it specifically.

My feeling is that there are two general purposes to the "occupations": one, to call attention to the issues (that is, to protest), and two, to build alternative structures that demonstrate something of what the world could be. Do you feel Occupy K Street is doing the latter, even if they're not being terribly active on the "protest" side of things?

Katie Casey said...

I get the feeling they're trying, and in some ways it's really working - I was impressed by the community within the park, the support from the people that came through even though they couldn't stay, that there was more than enough food for everyone, and the engagement with people who passed by. But they weren't completely on-point with the alternative structures either - the GA was kinda messy and they were especially confused about how to deal with the money.