Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dueling occupations

In appearance, it was like every other protest in Washington I have ever attended. And it had all the vibrancy of an assisted-living facility.

After spending significant time over the last week at the Occupy K Street camp in McPherson Square, the crowd at Freedom Plaza – where the other Occupy camp in the nation's capital is based – was jarringly older. Geriatric, even. This is where all the old-time activists conspicuously absent from the other camp were, I thought. Now it makes sense.

“There's no energy here,” a young guy named Alejandro wearing large pink sunglasses told me as I stood toward the back of the general assembly. “It's like a funeral home.”

Presumably confiding in me as I was one of the few other dudes under 30 – or 50 – he explained that he used to camp at Freedom Plaza back when the occupation started in October but soon left for the greener pastures of McPherson Square.

“They wouldn't let any of us young people have a say on things here,” he explained. “We used to have music. We used to have fun. Now it's a just bunch of pagans and Wiccans.”

No offense to pagans and Wiccans, but I could see why he left. In contrast to the larger Occupy DC camp on K Street, the camp at Freedom Plaza had no drum circles, no hula hoopers and, most noticeably, no life, the general assembly I witnessed having all the energy of a bible study in the basement of a Presbyterian church.

However, what they lacked in youth and energy was made up for sevenfold in condescension and sectarianism. At McPherson Square, I never heard a bad word about their fellow occupiers at Freedom Plaza, their free newspaper, The Occupied Washington Times, even going so far as to explicitly call them allies. At Freedom Plaza, by contrast, I heard people seemingly gleeful about the fact that “Code Pink people” are no longer there. Yay! We're alienating our few allies!

At the general assembly, meanwhile, I a number of speakers took pains to bad mouth their much counterparts at McPherson, seemingly still bitter over having their occupation – which was planned months ago under the title “Stop the Machine” to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan – shown up by a bunch of upstart youngsters.

And boy were they patronizing. One woman, for instance, spoke of having to step between the cops and the ragtag “kids” at McPherson when the latter got a little too hot under the collar at a recent protest outside the Washington Convention Center. These kids were confrontational, she said, and didn't appreciate the moral and pragmatic virtues of peaceful protest. A gray-haired likewise said the folks at the McPherson occupation professed a commitment to non-violence, but that the commitment to the ways of Gandhi and MLK was deeper at Freedom Plaza.

Cool, activist infighting! Zzzzzzz. *Drools on shirt, begins snoring* Huh, what?

To be fair, not every person who spoke was so condescending. Indeed, one older woman got up and explicitly denounced the more-non-violent-than-thou condescenders, saying she didn't like the suggestion that the McPherson kids were any less committed to non-violence. And the criticisms that were aired came in the context of a discussion about creating a joint legal defense fund for the two occupations, so there are attempts to better coordinate between the two groups, which is encouraging.

Before arriving in DC, I thought I would have greater affinity for the Freedom Plaza occupation, despite its more traditional reliance on a core of more or less professional activists; it was, after all, planned with an explicit focus on opposition to war and empire, which is kind of my thing. Accordingly, when I first arrived in the city I stopped by the plaza for a couple hours to freeze my ass off and hold a sign declaring “War = Crime / Obama = Criminal.”

What does that sign say, mommy?” a young girl asked as she walked by. “Don't read it!” the mother snapped back – for my benefit, obviously.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the consensus model used at McPherson Square, which seemed a bit closer to my own decentralist prejudices. Having now spent time at both occupations, I think I can fairly say that, while the models used by both camps can be complementary and each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages, one of them has proven decidedly more inclusive and conducive to growing a movement than the other.

It's not the one being used by all the old people.


  1. Well... there is that problem of Code Pink supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan "to help women." Maybe Jodie Moore got what she wanted from that stance -- her Warholian 15 minutes -- but it's still a sticky point. If they supported that action, what exactly do they claim is their similarity to the 99% and difference from the 1%?

  2. Honestly I've sort of noticed a similar divide at OWS. Certainly not true of all the older people there, but there's certain type of older white male that keeps emerging who has his issue, is going to say it regardless of the larger conversation happening and gets extremely frustrated when everyone else isn't immediately on board.

    I was talking to some presidential candidate who's platform was simply to put all laws to a public majority vote. And after agreeing with him that there is a major democracy deficit in the country where wildly unpopular laws are being passed, I tried to explain tyranny of the majority and how, just as a basic ethical principle, if I want to do something that affects another person, they should have to consent to it, blah blah blah. And he got frustrated and literally said, "I'm old I don't have time to talk about these things."

  3. I don't think "supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan" is entirely accurate, but regardless, that's but one person from an organization that is explicitly calling for an end to the war: http://www.codepinkalert.org/article.php?list=type&type=400

    Besides, the point was that some of the activists at Freedom Plaza seem proud of embracing sectarianism and glad to be dwindling in numbers, which I don't see as all too helpful when it comes to ending the empire.

  4. Oh God.

    Enough about old white people.

    Jesus fucking Christ. If only evil and virtue were so neatly distributed.

    Americans are religious about everything. They fight over what the best operating system and smart phone are like their lives depend on it. Of course their politics are sectarian. If it seems like young people are less so, it's only because they haven't chosen a doctrine yet.

    OWSs horizontalism tempers that tendency by structural means so young and old can work together. Hooray!!!

  5. Before the Freedom Plaza, DC occupation got started on Oct. 6, my posse and I checked out their Web site and we noticed that the whole thing stank out loud of Bush II-era Pwogs and other outfits (Code Pink, After Downing Street) who accomplished absolute zero during the '00s, but were determined to push on with the same old tactics with which they achieved jack shit. Hell, I'm surprised that the Freedom Plaza geezers are glad that Code Pink have split the scene; seems to me that Code Pink fits right in over there as they're yet one more Pwog outfit that hasn't accomplished anything in the near-decade since they first launched, and yet still cling to the same old ineffectual tactics and Nonviolence™ dogma. I don't recall Code Pink outwardly, explicitly supporting the war in Afghanistan, but I do recall that Medea "Media" Benjamin, on her "fact-finding" tour of Afghanistan a few years ago, totally fell for the crusty old womens' rights canard used by cynical politicians to rationalize US brutality in Afghanistan.

    The Posse and I covered the kickoff at Freedom Square for our respective blogs, and it looks like we totally nailed the Freedom Plaza scene from the get-go -- tepid energy levels, hidebound dogma, old Liberal condescension and all. Turns out that generally, in terms of age, politics and attitude, the McPherson Square scene is The Clash, while Freedom Plaza is more like Peter, Paul & Mary -- and while I'm rapidly closing in on 55, I gotta tell ya, I've always been more of a Clash kind of guy.

  6. Look, I don't mean to demonize old white people (I will be one in time), and I've met a lot of awesome old school activists who are open to discussion. But do you really not think there's a correlation between being a straight, white male and having a false sense of entitlement with respect to your opinion?

    OWS also has progressive stack, to keep that privileged mentality in check. I don't want to exclude anyone from process and I love for people to have their own pet projects within the movement, but just don't hijack other people's time and energy with your agenda.

  7. Interesting - the age and race prejudice and general nastiness shown here. Also interesting is the general level of negativity By Mr. Davis directed at both occupations (see the previous post) almost as if he is intentionally seeding dissension between the two groups. Well, I'm one of "the old white people" and I imagine I've seen more street action starting back in the sixties after 3 years in the Army, than the whole lot of you blogging and spewing out your immature nastiness. As far as geriatric and the assisted living cracks, you can stick that shit where it doesn't shine.

  8. Hmmm. Fascinating.

    Shades of the "never trust anyone over 30" mantra of the '60s. Plus ça change and all that. Or am I being too elitist?

    I believe enough in this movement that I lost a job over it. I think that's called putting your money where your mouth is. But then I'm probably just a sad old white chick who doesn't get it. Because I'm at Freedom Plaza.