01.18.12

Occupy Wall Street Takes Aim at Congress

Occupy Wall Street touched a nerve in New York because it pointed to a truth—the banks ripped us off—and tapped that populist rage. But in Washington, the nerve seems to be dead.

From our first days in Zuccotti Park, people would tell me: “You should be protesting in Washington, not here.” But that complaint missed the name and the point of Occupy Wall Street: that the banks have the real power, not the politicians. For its four-month anniversary, OWS effectively put this theory to the test by descending on the nation’s capital for the movement’s first national gathering since encampments began forming across the country last fall.

Occupy Congress was organized by members of Occupy DC to coincide with the first day of the House’s 2012 schedule. The day’s events were loosely scheduled around a multi-occupation “general assembly” on the west lawn of the Capitol, visits to the nearby congressional offices, and a march from the Capitol to the Supreme Court to the White House.

Crowds built over day as the rain cleared and the sun came out, but fell short of the 10,000 we’d hoped would come. Among the 2,000 or so who did come were OWS “celebrities” including Sgt. Shamar Thomas, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq; retired Capt. Ray Lewis of the Philadelphia Police Department; and live-stream sensations Tim Pool (New York) and Spencer Mills (Oakland). Captain Lewis was briefly detained while he was searched by Capitol Police, then released to cheers from the crowd.  At a rally in front of the Rayburn House Office Building, demonstrators ran up the stairs and dropped banners from the balcony.

Although modest compared with many of the larger OWS actions in New York, it was a unique opportunity for many people from smaller cities to feel the energy that comes only from joining thousands of others in the streets.

occupy-dc-cheat
PETE MAROVICH

“I’ve never seen so many people in the streets like that,” said Jordan, who came up from Occupy Charlotte to participate in J17 (the Twitter hashtag marking the day). “That’s more people than live in my hometown.”

Just as Occupy Wall Street had to balance its status as a national symbol with local concerns as it dealt with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly’s aggressive response to our presence and local issues including stop-and-frisk, foreclosures, and homelessness, many in Occupy DC stressed its local goals. “People show up here and think this is national,” said Legba, an Occupy DC organizer. “We are D.C. Statehood is a huge issue for us.”

It felt as if the city was immune to protest—that Washington has professionalized managing dissent.

Past the message of dissent and dissatisfaction with our elected officials, who so often seem to represent moneyed interests rather than the citizens who elected them, the event was important as a step in Occupy Wall Street’s growth into an organization with a national infrastructure. Occupiers came from all parts of the country to congregate in public—a core tenet of OWS—and to meet face to face and begin to connect the dots from the encampments across America.

Those local occupations multiplied and grew because they created a public commons for the many citizens who feel cut off from their government to organize and participate in self-governance, and because the press attention focused on the New York occupation gave the participants and the press the sense that each local moment was part of a much bigger story—lowering the bar for participation and attention. As the encampments expanded, they became magnets for like-minded people and sympathetic or just curious nonactivists. But growing into a true and enduring national movement will happen only as the local occupations connect with each other. Much work remains to develop a grassroots national organization that has the numbers to wield real power.

For many of the New York occupiers I spoke to on Tuesday—and there seemed to be as many of them there as D.C. occupiers—there was an overwhelming sense that the capital was very different from the Apple. Maybe it’s that the police are so nice. Or how the D.C. occupiers are generally compliant and abide by the cops’ orders. There was no feeling of urgency, no tension.

It felt as if the city was immune to protest—that Washington has professionalized managing dissent.

As I sat in the House gallery yesterday evening, the representatives in the chamber acted as if they didn’t notice the occupiers there to protest them, let alone the couple of thousand more protesters outside.

Occupy Wall Street touched a nerve in New York because it pointed to a truth—the banks ripped us off—and tapped that populist rage. But in Washington, the nerve seems to be dead.

All the more indication that we were right to target Wall Street.