This past Saturday, the National Park Police moved in on the Occupy DC camp at McPherson Square to “further enforce no camping rules”. Jake just happens to have a class in a nearby building on Saturday mornings, so I wandered down to the park to see what was going on.
First some diclosure: I have not been an active supporter of the Occupy movement. However, I do consider myself part of the 99% that they represent. I was excited when they first began protesting in October, but as the months have gone by, I just have never really understood what their goals are. And, this is often the complaint I hear from people. A few weeks ago, I was getting lunch in a restaurant adjacent to McPherson Square and a group of people from the camp were meeting. I overheard them talking about what their message was — and the responses were all over the place. That was nearly 4 months after they had arrived in DC.
During that time though, from my standpoint, they have acted with civility and have generally been peaceful in their protests. And, despite an appearance of not having a cohesive message (which, by the way, I know they would disagree with me on), what I do know is that there is a general unrest about the gap between the rich and everyone else in this country and that it trickles down into all areas of our lives. They are frustrated that people are accepting this as the status quo. And, I agree with these sentiments. I also am a strong believer in our First Amendment rights, so I while I have not been an active supporter of the movement, I would classify myself as a sympathizer.
It gets complicated though when you start looking at how these long term gatherings begin impacting the surroundings. McPherson Square had recently undergone a lengthy makeover, costing nearly half a million dollars. The funds came from the federal stimulus package which directed money toward renovating National Parks nationwide. The park was beautiful, with new sidewalks and benches, grass and flowers. Now, after 4 months of people camping there, it is gross. And, DC residents are angry about it. I heard a guy, who was arguing with protesters yesterday make a comment that they were destroying “my city”. This was met with outcry as even I thought to myself that nobody can lay claim to this city. This is our nation’s capital. It’s everyone’s city.
What frustrates Occupy DC folks — and me, as I stood by watching – is that the rules have changed. While camping in the park has never been allowed, Park Police have been cautious about citing anyone because of First Amendment Rights. They argue that the core of the Occupiers First Amendment activity is that they occupythe site. In other words, “occupying” the land in question is a core aspect of the group’s message. The
occupation is in itself an act of expression and is therefore protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed though (based on a decision in a similar 1984 case, Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence) and the Occupiers were notified that the NPS would begin enforcing the no camping rules at the park. They claimed it would not be an eviction and that tents would still be allowed as long as nobody was sleeping in them.
So, early Saturday morning, NPS police moved in to enforce those rules. I was not on the scene until about 10, so there had been a good 5 hours of activity before I got there. The streets around the park were closed off, but we were allowed to walk. Fences had been erected around the park, but at the time I was there, you were still allowed to walk around inside the park. There were piles of bedding, garbage and other items around the park and a group of people in hazmat suits were going through each tent. That seemed a little excessive to me, but reports are that there were dead mice and rats and other hazerdous material. What was upsetting to the protesters was that there were empty tents that were being taken down. Protesters felt they had been lied to and from where I was standing, it seemed they had been. Additionally, there were police in riot gear who were stationed around the park, which also seemed excessive. I know that they need to protect the public and try to keep the peace, but these people do not have a history of violence. On the other hand, it seemed to me that there were a handful of protestors who were doing their best to encite police. They were screaming profanities in their faces and calling them obsenaties as they stood stone-faced. There were a couple of times that arguments broke out between protestors and onlookers and the police would quietly move in those directions, but as long as I was there, they did not interfere.
In the hour and a half that I was on the scene, I did feel tensions begin to escalate, mostly on behalf of the protestors who were, I believe, justifiably frustrated with how this was all playing out.
One of the more tense moments occured when an onlooker began heckling the occupiers. He said he considered himself a “1-percenter” although he clearly wasn’t. He simply had a different political point of view. The thing is, the Occupy DC people are smart. If you are going to engage in a debate with them, you better be as smart and as quick or you will look like an idiot. This guy sure did.
After I left and the day wore on, things began to deteriorate. There were several arrests and a police officer was taken to the hospital after having a brick thrown in his face.
I don’t know what happens to the movement in DC now. The Occupy folks sounded determined to continue, but I’m not sure how much more patience the public has. But, it is clear to me that they are driven by a sense of justice and that they care about this country and the American people. And each other.