Wednesday, November 09, 2011

From no occupation to occupying K Street

A week earlier I was in Nicaragua soaking up sun and generally doing things that would make my mother cry. Now I was marching down K Street in downtown Washington, DC, during evening rush hour traffic, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds of protesters and dozens of cop cars, the sirens and flashing red-and-blue lights of the police filling the brisk, autumn air around me as the dim light of the falling dusk sun lit up the shimmering yellow and green leaves above.

I was also tripping pretty hard on acid, so there was that.

politicians and bankers
liars and thieves
we're taking these streets
and we're not saying please

Before relocating to my beach-side lair of dissent in Central America, I spent my first four impressionable years after college pugnaciously Fighting the System by asking members of Congress strongly worded questions. Eventually I tired of this, in part due to the sheer mundaneness of talking to banally evil lawmakers about amendments to appropriation bills, but also because of the limited range of stories my employers would allow to be published; when Jay Rockefeller, at the time the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me in 2007 that he was powerless to investigate media reports that the Bush administration was engaged in a covert war against Iran designed to evade congressional oversight, the public radio company I worked for refused to even let me pitch the story to a local affiliate in the senator's district, saying airing it could upset Mr. Rockefeller.

Ah, journalism.

After burning out, I decided to flee to a warmer climate where I could survive as a freelance writer. Naturally, as soon as I left, the American public – of course – started to show signs of waking up. So it goes.

When I returned to the nation's capital for the first time in a year late last month, I was eager to check out what the whole Occupy movement was all about, so I headed down down to my local revolutionary chapter where I was prepared to get my consensus on. There I was mostly impressed with the diversity of the protesters I saw, the focus on root causes – meaning corporate personhood as opposed to fiddling with tax brackets – and the absence of any explicitly partisan messages, though a bit disappointed with the rather conspicuous lack of any mention of the current president of the United States, something I could not imagine happening when that other guy was in the White House.

But checking out the Occupy DC base camp at McPherson Square did not satisfy my revolutionary zeal. I wanted to actually protest something, damn it.

That's how I eventually found myself occupying an intersection and chanting slogans about economic justice next to the Washington Convention Center, where inside some Republican bigwigs like Mitt Romney and Herman Caine were addressing the “Rebuild the Dream” conference sponsored by the right-wing Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers front group.

the banks got bailed out
we got sold out

Initially I was a bit worried about doing any action related to the Koch Brothers. That's not because I have any love for them and their brand of hyperventilating right-wing libertarianism, mind you; I loathed them before it was cool and those who equate state-backed property and the exploitation of the commons for private gain with Freedom and Liberty annoy me more than Obama fanboys. Most days.

Too often, though, the brothers Koch seem to fill the same role for partisan Democrats that George Soros and union “thugs” serve for idiot Republicans: as catch-all evil, James Bond-style villains whose nefarious doings are to blame for all that is wrong with the world – which have the added bonus of absolving one's preferred faction in the ruling establishment of their share of the blame for the status quo.

So I had some fear beforehand that I would be participating in a liberal Democrat wank fest, a cathartic two-minute hate of the Kochs and the evil Rethuglicans they fund that would conspicuously avoid any mention of the man, Barack Obama, responsible for handing trillions of dollars in public wealth over to the very sorts of rich people the Kochs play golf with every Sunday. But, despite the occasional, panging urge to run off to a field and stare up at the sky, I decided to engage in the action anyway because, hey, they are awful people who do bankroll an important, awful part of the governing class, so it's worth calling them bad names every once in a while – so long as we remember they are but one part of a bigger, bipartisan problem.

Unfortunately, my initial wariness did not prove to be entirely off base. After taking over K Street during rush hour traffic and hiking over to the site of the conference, those leading the march – meaning the people with the loudest drums and the biggest banners at the front – tried to corral protesters in a parking lot near the conference where there was a giant, inflatable pig decked out in a business suit and a green belt that said “Koch Bros: Fatcats for Prosperity.” Here we were told to “have fun” and, like, party!

The crowd, as I was made well aware in my hyper-sensitive state, did not like this. And I did not like that.

Those who came to the protest, after all, did so, not to “party down,” bro – keg stand! – but to protest the actual (not inflatable) fatcats next door. Shaking one's booty to house music might have been appropriate for the Occupy DC base camp, but it was a definite mood killer at a protest.

Refusing to heed the desperate pleading of the would-be organizers, who might have had better luck had they explained their intentions during the pre-march general assembly, people soon started to turn around and head back to where the center of action ought to be: the conference center full of assholes.

Wait 30 minutes and then we'll march, the people with the pig said. That soon turned to 10 minutes. Then, “Hold on one minute and we'll be right behind you.” The disgruntled masses complied, disgruntledly.

Soon we were back marching again. And then, 20 seconds later, we weren't. The pig people – apparently part of a group called “The Other 98%” – had more plans for us. Bags of popcorn began appearing in the hands of those around me as video began to be projected onto the side of the convention center, beginning with a slick – too slick – satire of the Kochs starring the gosh-isn't-he-funny? Jack Black.

The majority of the protesters weren't laughing. Worse still, the energy of the protest was visibly dissipating. Instead of chanting and marching, we were being asked to passively consume.

“Fuck TV,” someone started chanting. Others joined in. I did too.

Now the pig people weren't happy. They started pleading: We are here in “solidarity” with our allies at The Other 98%, they belatedly explained. The action will follow the screening, they belatedly informed the crowd. So as to not splinter the group – power in numbers and all that – everyone stayed, even as a possible agent provocateur (or, probably, just an asshole) who I recall thinking looked a lot like Kanye West ran through the crowd urging everyone to “fuck this shit” and break off from the party.

I'm pretty sure it was Kanye.

But why were we milling about and “partying” rather than protesting in the first place? Whose bright idea was that? John Sellers, a co-founder of The Other 98% – whose reformist, Democrat-friendly agenda centers on a call for the rich to pay their “fair share” of taxes – explained his reasoning in an interview with the Raw Story later that night:

We didn’t want to throw a protest. I, for one, am tired of being called a protester. We wanted to throw a demonstration of what America could be like, the America we want to live in. One where people are welcome to come into the streets and boogie down and speak their minds.”
Often times, progressives get seen as self-righteous or shrill, a little too literal. And we wanted to show America that we’re fun, that we’re having a blast, and that we need people to join us.”

I don't want to be too harsh, but given the reality of America today – mass unemployment, a war budget that takes half the federal discretionary budget at a time social services are being slashed and a gap between rich and poor that makes the country's class divide seem more like a caste system – what the United States needs is more protests, Mr. Sellers, not lame parties. Playing overly-produced videos mocking the Koch Brothers on the wall of their own conference might seem edgy, but you know what? Leave that for the Internet. I might even “like” it on Facebook.

That wasn't the worst of it.

As I stood there in an increasingly disoriented state of solidarity, I heard a voice – a familiar voice – being amplified behind me. My stomach churned as I looked at the image being projected above me: the gigantic face of adorable consumer advocate and Democratic candidate for Senate, Elizabeth Warren, giving her you-tell-'em! speech about the businessman and the social contract that all of your liberal friends have posted on your wall. This was the climax of The Other 98%'s protest and what I was most afraid of: an attempt to exploit the discontent with the status quo embodied by the Occupy movement on behalf of
the liberal rhetoric-spouting, Wall Street-beholden Democratic Party, and in particular a candidate – Warren – who hasn't found it in herself to say nary a bad word about a president who admits his co-opting administration is the last thing standing between Wall Street “and the pitchforks.”

Quite without thinking, I found myself for the first time in an over an hour yelling something that didn't rhyme: “Fuck Elizabeth Warren.” Not the most eloquently stated sentiment, to be sure, but solidarity only goes so far: when you try to push a Democratic Party candidate on a protest based in no small part in opposition to the policies enacted by a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, vulgarity, I think, is not an inappropriate response.

But a man with an uncanny resemblance to Michael Caine, wearing a top hat and a sash that said “Republicans are addicted to Koch,” wasn't pleased. “No!” he exclaimed. “She's one of the good ones!”

When I regained lucidity, I found myself half way through explaining that Warren was a “tool of the military-industrial complex.” Taking a breath, I realized that, particularly given my sudden burst of profanity, that might sound a bit crazy protester-y, so I got specific. Namely, I pointed to Warren's recent statement that, when dealing with Iran, “we should take nothing off the table,” Washington shorthand for missiles and bombs. I even provided a citation.

“That's disappointing to hear,” a genuinely disappointed-looking Michael replied, a reminder, at least to me, that education – not condescension or expulsion – is the best way of dealing with those in the Occupy movement who still have faith, however misplaced, in the Democratic Party. Many people still want to believe that a good person in politics, a kind-hearted, do-gooding Reformer, will save us. And given the narrow range of permissible debate on TV and even in supposedly leftist publications, it's no surprise a lot of people can't think outside of electoral politics and the futility of electing more and better politicians.

The goal of the radical should be to educate people, to show them how those determined to work within the system of electoral politics – within a stacked system designed by and for those who with the most money and power – are more often than not destined to be subsumed by it, with the occasional reformer who does get into office and doesn't lose his or her way destined to have as much power and influence as, say, Dennis Kucinich.

My attempt at education was cut short, however. We were moving again – and this time not to another party, but to an actual direct action: occupying the intersection of 7th and L St. NW in order to prevent convention-goers from going home. This is when things got more interesting – and not just because, later that night, a car would drive through the human chain of protesters blocking the intersection, sending three people to the hospital.

occupy wall street
occupy k street
occupy everywhere
and never give it back

In contrast to the passivity spurred by the co-opting, let's-watch-TV! 98 percenters, those occupying the intersection were encouraged to participate, namely by getting up and using the human mic to explain why they had come out – and why they had woken up. Everyone from unemployed and anti-war Iraq veterans to teachers to transgender individuals gave their reasons, their words being repeated by the rest of the crowd – a fact that thrilled me when it came time to say “I am an anarchist.” While each person's reasons differed, and while there was some groan-inducing complaints about not being able to go to law school – albeit coupled with a fair point that its exclusivity helps maintain class divides – it was empowering for those involved. And, to me, encouraging.

Unlike some of the anti-war protests I've attended in DC, this one wasn't just aging hippies and soap-box Trotsykists. And those involved weren't content protesting in their properly permitted free speech zone. Indeed, the diverse crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings embraced direct action, occupying streets and intersections. And despite the partisan potential of the protest and the efforts to co-opt it on behalf of the likes of Elizabeth Warren, there were no partisan speeches blaming all the world's problems on John Boehner and the Kochs.

In fact, I get the feeling – an admittedly wishful one – that the longer these protests go on, the less folks like Michael Caine will be receptive to the tired politics of the two-party system. These types of actions expose people to radicals, to real-life, decidedly not-scary anarchists and socialist; at the very least, I can't help but think some will go home and read a few eye-opening Wikipedia articles. At the main base of Occupy DC, one can already find a “radical info shop,” where, for perhaps the first time, many will be exposed to political ideas that don't find their way into Newsweek or MSNBC. Talking to one guy with a pretty sweet beard, he – not I – name dropped friend-of-the-site Peter Kropotkin.

I can confidently say that's never happened at any protest I attended during my four year stint in the nation's capital.

Your days are numbered!

It's also encouraging how young most of those participating in the Occupy movement are. Some of them may be naïve, to be sure, but I'll take naivety over the affected hipness of apathy.

By contrast, those at the Koch conference were, frankly, old as fuck. Like walking with a walker old. One of the few exceptions was an extremely self-satisfied, middle-aged blonde woman who seemed to really enjoy yelling back at the dirty hippies banging on the front doors to the convention center as she and others tried to make their exit.

A smile on her face as she made her way down the ramp to the street, the relatively young woman made eye contact with a defiant protester holding a sign that said “No Fear.”

“And no job either!” the counter-revolutionary bellowed, clearly pleased with herself.

“I bet that makes you feel really good about yourself,” I found myself telling her as she walked away. She snapped around.

“Are you a communist?” she sneered, putting her iPhone up to my face to record my response. Maybe I'm on YouTube.

“Do you have to be a communist to object to the status quo?” I replied, not confident that I could, given the context, adequately explain the finer tenets of anarcho-communism.

She quizzed me further, needing to reduce me to a label so she could hate me without reservation.

Well, what are you?”

“I'm an anarchist,” I said, a response produced a hearty round of fake belly laughter.

Well, what are you?” I prodded.

“I'm mocking you!”

Shit, I thought, that wasn't half bad.

Leaving the steps, I headed back to the intersection I had earlier occupied. As it turns out, just minutes before a driver in a Lexus had driven through the human chain of protesters that I had earlier been a part of, and which my lady friend still was. As multiple eyewitnesses told me, including the aforementioned lady friend, protesters had stood firm in the intersection just as they had for several hours before when the driver simply drove through them, only stopping a block later when police pulled him over.

Rather than arrest the driver, though, police let him go without charge, claiming – contrary to every account I heard and the behavior I witnessed earlier when other cars tried to pass through – that protesters had hit the car first. The police also said the light was green, which apparently makes it okay to purposely run over human beings.

Presumably under orders not to do any attention-grabbing mass arrests – when we marched back to the Occupy DC encampment by going through the center of Chinatown and by the White House, cops dutifully blocked off traffic without uttering a word to any of us protesters – the cops were able to passive-aggressively get their revenge: if they couldn't put any of us in a paddy wagon, they would ensure those who did their work for them and clear us out of the intersection by way of running us over could do so without consequence.

Bienvenidos a America, occupiers, where the law is designed by and for the powerful and enforced at the arbitrary discretion of their enforcers. I trust many protesters around the country have experienced similar injustices, which are daily perpetrated against the poor and powerless in this country. And I trust that when it comes to how the system really works, they're receiving an education.


  1. LorenzoStDuBois8:30 AM

    Great to see you back in business, Chahlieboy. Glad that you didn't actually go the way of old Ambrose and get devoured by the Chupacabra. You have been missed.

  2. Not everyone attends a protest with you ears and eyes Charles.

    What I appreciate about this piece is you showing those who think they are awake only really have one eye open maybe a quarter of the way. Many still in dupe/follow mode.

  3. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I don't agree with all of your politics but this is a gorgeous piece.

  4. Anonymous6:18 PM

    In all honesty I would be tempted to stay in Nicaragua if it is as nice as you say it is. Is life in the First World overrated?

  5. This is a really great account. I love it features your sharp critiques but also recognizes the power and possibility of this movement.

    One minor point of disagreement. I think the lack of Obama-focus is a strength of Occupy. For 8 years, we all agreed there was a really evil villain we (using "we" loosely) all agreed was the root of our problems. Then for 2.5 years, some of us screamed ourselves hoarse that Obama was an evil villain while others derided our inability to understand the 12-dimenional game of chess that Obama was playing. Weeks, months, years were lost to debating Obama's psychological state, motives, strategy, etc . . .

    My sense is that many in Occupy rightly recognize that its irrelevant who's in the White House so spending time trying to get people to hate a person, rather then an institution, is a waste of time.

  6. Fire Tom Friedman,

    I don't disagree -- I'd see the lack of focus on Obama as a bigger problem if I saw a bunch of signs denouncing congressional Republicans, but so far that hasn't been the case. I'm hopeful that, as you suggest, it's a product of the movement's focus on systemic change, not a change in personnel.

    At the same time, as I wrote, I couldn't imagine a protest a few blocks from the White House not mentioning George Bush by name back when he was in office. But maybe that's a sign of progress.

  7. John,

    I'm going back to Nicaragua in a few weeks, if that answers your question.

  8. jcapan12:27 AM

    Good to see you posting again. Regarding Warren et al, I’m reminded of this:

    On what “the goal of the radical should be,” I’d say it’s less about education than overcoming cognitive dissonance. What you say in that paragraph can hardly be considered radical at this late date, but there are still too many who are unwilling to acknowledge it, to give up the faith.

    And if President Bush or McCain were in the WH, we wouldn’t have a chance of jolting them out of their electoral consciousness. But Obama, he of the inspiring campaign followed by nearly 3 years doing the oligarchs’ bidding, makes our case much harder to ignore.

  9. A great read, Mr. Davis. I knew the "Occupy the Polls" slogan and the like were basically a redirection of Occupy energy into the acceptable tepid liberal reformism of the Democrats, but now I know what the on-the-ground redirection/co-opting is like.

    Thanks for your excellent account.

  10. Anonymous10:41 AM

    Hi Charles -- I've been reading you since Greenwald recommended you. Your writing is quite trenchant but I am struggling with your "anarcho-communism." Anarchy of any stripe sits poorly with me because, like Greenwald, I strongly favor the rule of law.

    Also, I'm curious what non-coercive means you'd endorse to prevent wealth-accumulation? You see little potential for dystopia in what you advocate?