Pitching a Tent of Dreams

When I arrived at McPherson Square that Monday afternoon, all I could think was, “Good god, what have they done? Are they crazy?” Yes, I knew instantly that the DC Occupiers were crazy in a daring and stupid way. At the same time a giddy, elated feeling arose in me, and I also knew that they were crazy in a bold and beautiful way. The Tent of Dreams was already casting a spell on me.

We all knew that weekend that Occupy DC was under grave threat, particularly McPherson Square, which didn’t have a permit like its sister protest at Freedom Plaza. Following the hearing of the House Oversight Committee the previous week and under political pressure, the National Park Service announced that it was going to enforce its “no camping” regulations. Park police officers posted flyers at the camps making clear that enforcement would go into effect at noon on Monday.

Tension was high. No one knew exactly how this would play out, whether the Park Service had found a way to gradually kick Occupiers out by giving them citations and barring them from returning, or if this was the harbinger of a Zuccotti Park or Oakland-style eviction. It seemed like everyone anticipated a paramilitary police invasion promptly at the stroke of noon, although that scenario was unlikely to say the least. A call went out for all Occupy DC supporters to come to McPherson at midday–ready, it was assumed, to defend the Square.

A blaze of blue rose up from the center of the park. A huge tarp draped the statue of the General, except it was no longer Lee McPherson straddling the fiery steed high above our heads, it was Guy Fawkes. The tarp was painted with yellow and white stars, figures and slogans, and large letters spelled out “Tent of Dreams.” Occupiers defiantly stationed themselves at the base of the statue under the tarp. “Oh, shit,” I thought. “They’re toast.”

This deed surpassed even the erection of the OccuBarn on December 4, something that I eventually concluded was misguided and poorly executed, putting the camp in unnecessary jeopardy. The modular, wooden structure was intended to shelter General Assemblies and other meetings and symbolically to highlight the problem of foreclosure and homelessness. McPherson Occupiers seemed not to know that the US Park Police would come down on them like a ton of bricks–which they did as soon as morning light broke.

Although I had been involved with Occupy DC at McPherson Square since early November, the camp at Freedom Plaza was probably a more natural fit for me. A slightly older crowd who tended to work with authorities suited my style of conciliatory activism and preference for nonviolence than the younger, more radical crowd at McPherson Park. They had often disappointed me with high tolerance for drugs, alcohol, and unacceptable behavior and reflexive hostility toward police or any authority. Yet I was drawn to them and not Freedom Plaza. Freedom Plaza was boring, frankly. The McPherson Occupiers always made the news, were the news, for good and bad reasons.

Now a huge tent on the sacred icon of the General? Not even George W. Bush could say “Bring it on!” in such clear and unambiguous terms. The raid didn’t happen immediately. It was five days later when the Park Police invaded at dawn with full paramilitary force. The subsequent compliance inspection exceeded the scope of recent court rulings and, with the sleep ban, was the equivalent of eviction.

The Tent of Dreams was folly, I thought, wrecking any chance the camp had for compromise and survival, and given the outcome five days later, maybe that was true. Yet the striking appearance of the Tent and its symbolism was palpable. It became the image seen throughout the nation if not the world that day. My 40-something sensibilities weakened, and I began to believe in revolution again like a 20-something. I got a vision from the Tent of Dreams.

That day the Occupiers chanted, “Let us sleep so we can dream.” Sleeping in the park was something that the Park Service was trying to prohibit, according to their definition of camping versus protest. DC Occupier John Zangas argued that “sleep is a human right,” not that sleeping in a park is allowed under the law. I knew that much of the camp was made up of homeless people, who wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep if the camp was evicted. Before Occupy DC and after, the homeless have no legal right to sleep and are not only exhausted but deprived of dignity because of it. Zangas continued, “If moral correctness doesn’t coincide with legal correctness, then [we] need to be morally correct.”

“Let us sleep so we can dream.” Sleep invokes dreams. If I could never fully square the presence of Occupations with fair application of urban statutes, I’ve supported them because of the overwhelming knowledge of our loss of power as citizens. Bit by bit, our civil rights have been whittled away, our economic worth decimated, and our votes rendered worthless to an unprecedented degree. There is nothing left but to get out on the streets. To Occupy. To dream of taking back our power and our dignity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream.” To make that dream a reality, he asked people to consult an inner compass that knows what dignity is, what our true inherent rights as human beings are. The Day of the Tent of Dreams taught me something: to be unapologetic in asserting that moral compass, to be bright and bold and beautiful. And that big dreams will come to pass only if many people dare to dream them together.

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