McPherson Madness Reveals Struggle Between Mother and Revolutionary

Kelly Canavan, author of McPherson Madness, pulled away by U.S. Marshals
Kelly Canavan, author of McPherson Madness, pulled away by U.S. Marshals in June 2012

In McPherson Madness, playwright Kelly Canavan revisits a moment in recent history and shows how the drama of revolutionary movements can draw out the drama in one’s personal life. When she joined the Occupy movement in November 2011, she did not know it was setting the stage for a play she would later author.

In October 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was taking to the New York City streets, a small group of people started a sister encampment in Washington, DC. Within weeks, it grew to several hundred tents covering the entire park.

Like Occupy DC on which it is based, McPherson Madness is set in a public park near the White House, McPherson Square. Its main character, Dreama, is a mother on a journey in a social movement, struggling to balance the extremes of two lives. She’s a character split into two separate personas. “Info Dreama” (Jen Bevan) exists as the dominant role, pulled in by the gravitational energy of the Occupy DC movement, while Dreama (Tina Ghandchilar) internalizes the conflict with her family life outside the park.

Her obligation to participate in what she sees as a necessary revolution in society is pitted against her duty to take care of her son. As the play unfolds, she must come to terms with this conflict.

She lives almost schizophrenically, vacillating between separate worlds. There’s no peace for her as she skirts between the charged energy of the park and her son’s home life she has temporarily escaped. The audience never meets him, and only learns about him from her cellphone calls.

The ghostlike appearance of her doctor (Jean Miller) coaches her through her issues with sexuality, motherhood, and health, through dialogues with her two personas.

The play was artfully directed by Lynnie Raybuck, a perfect fit for this production, who finds “people more interesting than right or wrong.” The art backdrop, a 10’x20′ acrylic poster depicting a grand scene of McPherson Square, was painted by Ray Voide, who has previously painted dozens of protest posters.

Cast member Sha Golanski on set. Backdrop by artist Ray Voide.
Cast member Sha Golanski on set. Backdrop by artist Ray Voide.

McPherson Madness achieves authenticity since it was written by someone who actually lived and documented her journey within Occupy in a personal way. It pulls the audience into Dreama’s struggle while showing the harsh consequences of a society broken by its troubles and failings–and those who try to fix it.

It speaks to social issues of alcoholism, poverty, homelessness and the extraordinary efforts of people to “fight back” against oppressive social and economic ills. There may be stereotypes, but each is treated with a great amount of respect, each given a central role of dramatic importance. It shows that in the midst of complete chaotic breakdown people can still find humanity in how they treat others. In this production the issues of political correctness remain silent: it is about people.

McPherson Madness is a must-see  exploration of a woman evolving through a modern revolution, torn between complex worlds revealing the personal lives of its players, on display for everyone.

McPherson Madness is part of the Capital Fringe Festival, It shows Sunday, July 21, 2:30 PM at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Streets NW (corner of P Street NW) Washington, DC and Saturday, July 27th, 6:30 PM.

Occupy DC eviction at McPherson: Reflections on one year ago

by John Zangas

I stood by my tent late at night gazing up at the Tent of Dreams, its blue tarp billowing in the cold wind. Another occupier approached me. He said that police planned to raid the camp later that night. Just five days before, U.S. Park Police had warned us that they would start enforcing the statute against sleeping or possession of sleeping bags and blankets. Uneasily I went from tent to tent spreading the news. What would happen to our camp if there was a raid?

The warnings proved true: police arrived in legions before dawn and began cordoning off K Street and surrounding areas in every direction. It was February 4, 2012, the day that an overwhelming police force mobilized to evict Occupy DC from McPherson Square.

We occupied McPherson Square to protest structural socio-economic inequality. We didn’t camp to create conflict with police or local businesses, although the media portrayed us that way. It was easy for them to define us by appearance and not by purpose. We had carefully articulated our concerns, both from socio-economic and ecological standpoints, in our December 1st declaration.

Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Ethics committee, had called a hearing to question the National Park Service’s handling of the McPherson Occupation. But even if Congress had been friendly to our cause, it alone couldn’t resolve our concerns on behalf of the people. The very edifice of banking, Wall Street, commerce and government was the problem, we believed.

Published reports of bank and Wall Street misconduct and legal actions against them justified our actions: up to 90% of foreclosure transactions were fraudulent, according to whistleblower accounts. Rampant mortgage fraud and misconduct during the 2008-2010 foreclosure crisis resulted in a $25 billion settlement by five major banks. They did not have to admit wrongdoing.

Banks across the U.S. and Europe were involved in the LIBOR scandal, which fraudulently valued trillions in assets by fixing bank to bank loans while cheating borrowers in 2007. With knowledge of LIBOR irregularities, the U.S. Federal Reserve still loaned banks billions in interest-free TARP money in 2008.

Another major issue we stood for was action on global warming. There is ever-increasing scientific evidence of world climate change–catastrophic storms and new temperature records across the U.S. Meanwhile, measurements in ice-flow melting rates in Iceland and the Antarctic are accelerating at rates never before seen.

We were protesting all this and more and believed the people supported us, yet mainstream media was neglecting the vital issues.

We didn’t want to confront police, but when they came to McPherson Park to take down Occupy DC–as police had earlier that year evicted every Occupation in a major city–we couldn’t stop the freight train approaching at full speed.

That morning they stationed a tactical command center truck, positioned sharp shooters with scopes on rifles on building rooftops, deployed a fully armed paramilitary squad with tasers and automatic weaponry, and sent a horse cavalry onto the green. They erected truckloads of metal barricades around the perimeter and strung yellow tape. It was as if they came to fight a battle against a domestic terror group. But we had no weapons; we were a non-violent movement and they knew it.

They immediately removed the Tent of Dreams tarp from the statue of General McPherson and arrested four protestors at its base for “failure to obey” police orders. Several scuffles broke out and there were injuries, as police in full riot gear strategically moved throughout the camp dissembling tents, overwhelming the camp and its occupiers. Workers in white hazmat suits threw away most of the tents, and vehicles tore up rain-soaked ground. The park ground was ripped to tatters, mostly by the operation itself.

I stood in front between police and protestors, perhaps foolishly, in the role of a reporter taking pictures and videos until the last of my phone memory ebbed. The police ignored me. Teams of strong men slid metal barricades into place like fake movie props. As dusk approached and a drizzle fell, occupiers stood together as one at the People’s Library, singing songs of camaraderie, such as “I shall not be moved” and “We shall overcome.” Then there was a sudden push as police forced us out of the park and onto K Street. The Occupation had ended, or so we thought.

We held a spontaneous General Assembly and testified to the day’s experiences late into the rainy night. Washington D.C. now had dozens of new homeless on its streets. Word came from Luther Place Memorial Church that they would give us a place to stay.

I returned to the park early the next morning to an unrecognizable landscape. A few police were still there standing watch. I looked to where my tent one stood and found nothing but a deep furrow of mud dug by truck wheels. Nearly every tent and sign was gone. But the beloved People’s Library still stood! The books were untouched, still organized on their shelves.

I felt resignation and wondered how the movement had come to this. We believed the people supported us, especially those hurt by the repressive system of banks, Wall Street brokers, selfish CEO’s and a government corrupted by cozy relationships with them. But yesterday, where was our cavalry, where were the people? Had we failed?

I thought about our efforts to make the change our society so desperately needed: the meetings we held, the discussions, the classes, the hundreds of free meals prepared in our kitchen, the extraordinary time we put into the declaration of societal wrongs, and wondered if anything we had done had made a difference.

We challenged institutions and authority in a pitched battle of wills for four long months. Their final response was to send in a paramilitary force to shut us down. We had no weapons with us that day or any other day other than our will and perseverance.

In the coming months we continue to occupy the park in a limited way. We weren’t allowed to camp, but our library remained open and even a few tents stayed until June.

Noam Chomsky said that the Occupy movement “lit a spark” of awareness. Although we were evicted from the park, I believe that ultimately we had made a difference. We prevailed by standing up to the authors of a broken system. We showed others that it could be done.

Cool Day in History: The Tent of Dreams

A rare video of McPherson Occupiers raising the Tent of Dreams and placing it over the park’s central statue

On Monday, January 30, 2012, Occupy DC erected a giant blue tent in the middle of McPherson Square and draped it over the statue of General McPherson. It was a final act of defiance against the National Park Service and Rep. Darrell Issa, who was using his position as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee to crush Occupy in the nation’s capital.

Visually captivating and rich in symbolism, the “Tent of Dreams” made national news that day:

As if determined to vindicate the occupation movement’s every argument about the power of the 1 percent, Rep. Darrell Issa, the richest man in Congress, had taken the greatest offense at their use of public space in the heart of the city to broadcast their egalitarian message. Last week, the California Republican called a hearing to browbeat the flak-catchers of the federal bureaucracy to enforce a ban on camping in public places. And on Friday he got his way. The Park Police posted a yellow notice that come Monday at noon the demonstrators would all be subject to arrest for sleeping in the park.

In response, an ad hoc committee of about 15 occupiers got together last Friday night to talk about what they wanted to do. ”We wanted a confrontation on our terms,” said Ricky Lehner, a 23-year-old man from Florida who has made the camp his home since October.

“We know the Park Police are very protective of the statue,” said Travis McArthur, a researcher at a well-known liberal nonprofit, referring to the mounted figure of Maj. Gen. James McPherson, a Union hero in the Civil War, that stands in the center of the square. ”Since I came here, I’ve come to think of him as our patron saint, our protector.”

If the authorities were going to take away their tents, they decided, they would have to do so on a grand scale. So when the Park Police deadline arrived at noon on Monday, they struck. As the square was thronged with cameramen and spectators looking for confrontation, a couple of young men mounted the statue and the rest hauled out a huge blue nylon dropcloth, which they hoisted up and over McPherson’s shoulders. They secured the flaps to the little iron fence around the statue so everyone could see the yellow and white stars (and a Star of David). They dubbed it, “The Tent of Dreams.”

“The idea was let us sleep so we can dream of  better world,” said McArthur, and all around the tent sprouted witty indignant signs: “I dream of First Amendment Rights” and  ”I dream of taxation on the 1%” and “No sleep, no justice,” and “We the non-corporate people.”

State of McPherson: Still fenced in

McPherson Square, January 2013

The grass is thick and green at McPherson Square, yet for months fences have remained in place for “restoration.” Could it be that the Park Service doesn’t want anyone “occupying” the park?

McPherson Square in January 2012. Less grass, fewer fences, more freedom.
McPherson Square in January 2012. Less grass, fewer fences, more freedom.

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a wrong-headed philosophy for a park. Public spaces are for the people to use and enjoy.

Last year when McPherson was covered with tents, plenty of people complained that Occupy prevented them from using the park for their own enjoyment. That the grass was ruined at taxpayer expense was frequently hurled at protestors. This year they can’t use it for a different reason–pre-emptive abridgement of free speech.

The grass is back. Freedom to exercise our rights without fear is not.


Still here, still defiant: Occupy DC celebrates anniversary with morning rush hour march

What better way for Occupy DC to celebrate its birthday than by taking to the streets? The first tents were pitched at McPherson Square on October 1, 2011. A year later, Occupy DC is still putting emphasis on the destructive influence that corporations have on our economy and society.

About 150 Occupy DC activists marched through downtown during morning rush hour, stopping at several “targets” along the way, including Cargill, Monsanto, British Petroleum (BP), J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, JBG (the largest developer in the District), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

At one point, the march spontaneously joined a carpenter’s union picketing Anning-Johnson and sang “Solidarity Forever.”

Onlookers had various reactions to Occupy DC and its protest march. One man from suburban Maryland, who preferred not to give his name, supported Occupy’s goals, saying, “People need jobs,” but didn’t think anything came out of the Occupy camps, nor did he think the street protest was effective. While he felt that there were significant problems, he said they were “everybody’s problem,” yet admitted he didn’t have good solutions.

A woman visiting from Jamaica didn’t quite seem to know what to make of the activists, who at that point were mingling with the union workers. “What is it?” she asked. She said they didn’t have these kind of protests in Jamaica.

On the other hand, just-arrived tourist Luiz Lozer said that there were much larger protests in his home country of Brazil. “For what you’re up against, you’re too few,” he said. “There should be hundreds of thousands on the streets.” He had heard of Occupy Wall Street and its anti-corporate, anti-financial crisis mission. Lozer also described American society as being under “a right-wing anesthesia.” “You’ve got a presidential candidate who thinks he doesn’t need the poorest vote. It’s impressive,” he said.

More protests continued this afternoon at Pepco and the Chamber of Commerce, and an evening march is planned.

“OccuPlay” puts Occupy DC on stage at Fringe Festival

Joanna Stevens as Lydia the Livestreamer by the Info Desk

Six months or more after most Occupy camps were evicted, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the fruits of research and art that have germinated since. There’s going to be more–research articles, books, documentaries, novels. Each will depict a facet of a remarkable time in history, but none will tell the whole story. Most will focus on Occupy Wall Street; so far there seems to be less being produced specifically about Occupy DC.

Tent of Dreams: An OccuPlay, however, is an admirable effort to grasp the heart of what Occupy DC at McPherson Square was like. It takes a look into the inner workings of the camp, from the moment a naïve, aspiring livestreamer arrives at McPherson in Fall 2011 to the eviction which took place on February 4, 2012. The play took its name from the blue tarp thrown over the statue of General McPherson in defiance of the National Park Service, just when eviction seemed imminent.

It was good to see “our story” on stage. Playwright Emily Crockett and director Emily Todd believe in Occupy and put their hearts and souls into this production. They researched, interviewed, and put in the hours at McPherson.

Emily Todd said that she listened to Occupiers’ personal stories and couldn’t believe what she heard. “I mean, what the fuck is this? I would have had these expectations of Cuba. That’s why we thought this conversation had to happen.”

“Occupy absolutely changed my life,” said playwright Emily Crockett, a reporter for Campus Progress. “It changed the focus of my attention and reporting and art for the next 9 months and surely will continue to. It inspired me to believe that a true positive shift in our culture is possible and is even upon us.”

Dannielle Hutchinson as the Anarchist

Committed actors put in passionate performances. Dannielle Hutchinson, who played the Anarchist, said, “It was one of the more challenging roles I’ve played.” Kelly Keisling, who ironically played both the Cop and the Dirty Fucking Hippie, related the difficulty in moving to a fixed script after improvising for the first two months of rehearsal. “[Emily Crockett] was the one inserting facts, and we [the actors] were the ones inserting drama,” he said. And he must have experienced one facet of Occupy firsthand; he said the collaborative writing process “ran long like a GA [General Assembly].”

My favorite device of the play was the mainstream media journalist, played by Alexia Poe. She does a stand-up in news-speak while police brutally push Occupiers out of the park, an effective contrast. Throughout, she and others repeatedly ask, “What are your demands?” They never quite hear the answer. Yeah, get a clue.

Occupy DC watching itself on stage is bound to get a little meta. It’s only appropriate that part of the first performance was livestreamed, and the second was live-tweeted. The audience for the play though really isn’t Occupy DC, it’s the general public who had only vague impressions of the tents which proliferated at McPherson Square.

Audience member Jennifer Shieh said, “I biked past McPherson all the the time but didn’t actually stop and talk. I had the intention to stop and be a “tourist” [referring to a line in the play], but it never happened.” Her friend Ben Lu said, “I learned a lot. I didn’t realize how organized it was, and how many processes were in place.”

At the end of Tent of Dreams–the aftermath of the February 4 eviction–a character speaks an aspiration for taking the park back. In reality, no matter how much emotion was invested in McPherson, no matter how much grief was experienced when the camp was violently wrecked by Park Police, few now want to “take back” the park. Occupation is a tactic, not the substance of the movement. The hopeful note is a good one to end a play on and shows that Occupy DC didn’t collapse with eviction, but the reality is grittier. Well, the whole thing is grittier, and smellier.

At the same time, the aspirations of Occupy DC in actuality are even loftier, symbolized by the Tent of Dreams. Fact is, the movement lives on, just in a different form–fractious, flawed, idealistic, iconoclastic. What comes after the moment when Tent of Dreams ends is just when it gets most interesting. It’s subtler and more complex, and it will be much more difficult to depict.

Tent of Dreams: An OccuPlay is a production of Nu Sass and is playing at the Capital Fringe Festival through July 29.

View more photos of Tent of Dreams here.

Evicted from a public space, will Occupy DC kick itself out of a private one?

If things keep going the way they are, Occupy DC is going to lose a good thing.

In May there was a little dust-up because Service Employee International Union (SEIU) generously leased office space for the campless movement in the Institute for Policy Studies building. There were accusations of Occupy DC and the union being a little too cozy. On the contrary, Occupy DC isn’t complying with the only deal it struck with SEIU for the office space: a self-enforced basic code of conduct.

The group is having a hard time holding up its end of the bargain. After months of working out the details, the top priority for the Resource Center, as it’s called, is using the office suite for “getting shit done.” But there are some who use the place to camp out just like they did at McPherson Square.

A lot of shit is getting done there, it’s true. It’s a secure and climate-controlled space for committee meetings and provides desks, computers and wi-fi for anybody wanting to accomplish something for the movement.

While spontaneous, stimulating conversations occur there all the time, it’s not supposed to be a hang-out–or an Occupation like McPherson Park was. The code of conduct forbids sleeping, squatting or storing personal belongings. Unfortunately, after weeks of habitual rule-breaking and desperate solutions like changing the locks, Occupy DC can’t seem to rein in several individuals. Even worse, their behavior reinforces some of the worst stereotypes of Occupiers–the place smells bad, it’s sometimes dirty and full of backpacks, people go shirtless and bathe in the restrooms.

In an office building, that’s not going to fly. Occupy DC seems in danger of losing its Resource Center after October if SEIU decides not to renew the lease–and keep forking over $3,500 a month. Or even sooner.

Occupy DC is responsible for who it lets into its office–or can’t keep out. But there is a wider issue. Most of the squatting is by young people who are homeless. There’s some tolerance at play here simply knowing that someone is pretty desperate for a place to sleep and get out of 100-degree heat. Housing problems don’t have easy solutions.

And the District isn’t doing its part to address housing and homelessness, increasingly instituting more austerity measures and closing shelters. Coincidentally, Occupiers who were arrested in November 2011 protesting the closure of a homeless shelter at the Franklin School in 2008 will go on trial July 9.

As a statement from Free Franklin DC reads,

Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

Pretty ironic that Occupy DC put itself on the line to address homelessness, yet may itself be undone by it.

UPDATE 7/16/12: The executive director of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which houses the Occupy DC Resource Center, dropped by the office to hand-deliver a letter detailing complaints. Efforts to get things in hand since have had mixed results. There’s no doubt that the majority is disgusted by the habits, hygiene and behavior of a minority. Yet that minority stubbornly clings to a belief in its right to do whatever it pleases in the office space, consequences be damned.

The office was cleared of personal belongings abandoned there, aired out with fans, and generally cleaned up. Messes large and small still occur and have to be cleaned up, there’s sleeping overnight, loitering, playing video games and surfing the internet. Situation improved but not solved.

There was a follow-up meeting with IPS this week, basically admitting we know we have a problem, we’re trying to fix it. Will that be enough to preserve a valuable resource?

State of McPherson

Since all traces of the Occupation were removed from McPherson Park on June 12, the Park Service moved in to fence off the north sections for restoration. The southwest section of the park was reopened.

They also–finally–realized that most of the park’s benches were inaccessible due to the fencing.

Occupy DC plans to restore its presence in the park through art installations, educational materials, mobile libraries, teach-ins and events.



OccuBarn trial: Emergency situation

Some facets of the OccuBarn trial go to the heart of First Amendment issues dogging Occupy movement protests. One of those issues is discretionary powers of police–how laws governing them are conceived, and how those powers are used and abused.

Since findings of fact could very likely go against the defendants in the OccuBarn trial, defense counsel Jeff Light has gone for the jugular in attacking the substantive basis of the charges themselves. And, not only is he challenging the constitutionality of the statutes, he’s attacking the situational basis of one charge in particular: “failure to obey order – emergency.” All fourteen defendants face this charge.

Light is calling into question whether the scene at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011 warranted a declaration of emergency by the police, and he furthermore asserts that they exercised discretionary powers at odds with First Amendment rights.

In the motion to dismiss, he cites an appellate court ruling (Washington Mobilization Committee v. Cullinane) which struck down the District police lines regulation (of which this emergency statute is a part) for being overly broad:

It is difficult to conceive of a more pernicious prescription. A police officer is given unfettered discretion to issue any order he thinks reasonable and then is allowed to initiate criminal proceedings against a person who disobeys the order.

The Catch-22 here is obvious, especially to seasoned protestors. As the motion to dismiss points out, an unjustified order to disperse, for example, can lead to arrest for loitering. During trial, Light said, “For the protection of persons and property, the circumstances are so broad that there are no limits on a police officer’s discretion and whether he believes that it’s necessary [to declare an emergency].” Without express guidelines, police may have the power to criminalize harmless conduct.

Prosecutor Sean Farrelly countered that there was no more discretion involved in declaring an emergency than for a police officer to determine whether a crime was being committed, but he agreed that police could declare an emergency whenever they wanted to.

He gave specific rationale for the police decision to declare an emergency situation at McPherson Park: the OccuBarn structure was unsafe, there were hundreds of people in the park, and it was necessary to shut down traffic around the park.

Judge Elizabeth Wingo denied the motion to dismiss, saying, “The entirety of the statute is aimed at giving police officers authority to deal with an emergency.”

The judge didn’t find the defense’s direct challenges to the statute based on over breadth and vagueness persuasive, but going forward the defense strategy clearly will be attacking the rationale for the police’s declaration.

(Photo by