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.

State of McPherson

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Tent of Dreams: A final act of defiance

by John Zangas

It was the final act of defiance by Occupy DC, a group of people who had given their last ounce of effort in protest, their last will in a park occupation–against a system we saw as repressive. In the previous three years, millions of people had lost their homes, and millions more had lost their jobs and savings. Ordinary people climbing the ladder to the American Dream slipped and lost their foothold forever.

Why did we erect the Tent of Dreams? The bankers and stock traders on Wall Street, who nearly destroyed the economy by the summer of 2008, silently slipped under the radar of legal prosecution. Yet occupiers who expressed dissatisfaction with lack of economic opportunity were being arrested by the thousands, merely for exercising their First Amendment right to dissent. What drove us was the fundamental imbalance of power, which was made even more apparent as the Occupy movement unfolded. Occupiers were arrested around the country in an arbitrary enforcement of the law, while financial managers went unpunished, still raking in millions in fraudulent profits.

Four days before we raised the Tent of Dreams, the U.S. Park Police had left official letters on our tents, warning us that we were no longer welcome. We knowingly were breaking a federal statute which forbade sleeping in tents in public parks.

So we created a symbol of a dream–a huge blue tarp painted with falling stars, symbols, and statements of hope. Just before noon on January 30, we used long poles and strung it up over the statue of McPherson, a brass symbol of state power. We encircled it and chanted, “We are the 99 percent!” and defiantly willed the state to come and take it down!

We hunkered down and stayed together under the blue tarp, taking turns on the nightwatch for an imminent police raid. It did not come the first exuberant night, nor did it come on the second or third nights. Guitars played, drums beat, coffee was served. Camaraderie kept us assured that we were doing the right thing. Defiantly we stood together, sleepless sentinels against the inevitable.

Some of us managed to stay up the first night until dawn without sleep under that blue tarp in a “sleep strike.” We persevered for four days and nights before the last of us caved in to exhaustion. By the fifth day, our fear turned into boredom.

Little did we know that the raid police planned for February 4th would change us forever.

State of McPherson: Still fenced in

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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.

 

Judge issues scathing rebuke to prosecution at OccuBarn hearing

In a hearing of a case related to the structure erected by Occupy DC known as the “OccuBarn,” a DC Superior Court Judge dealt scathing criticism to the prosecution for failing to meet deadlines for filing motions. Calling their behavior “a gross dereliction of duty” and “lame,” Judge Elizabeth Wingo considered dismissing the case and even the unusual measure of conceding the case on Constitutional grounds. She’s now weighing whether to levy sanctions against them.

Even before addressing the preliminary issue of potential conflicts of interest arising from counsel Jeff Light’s representation of all defendants in the case, Judge Wingo immediately took the opportunity to announce her displeasure with the prosecution’s lapse. To Peter Saba, the attorney standing in for Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly, she said, “I realize this is not your case, so you’re somewhat a lamb to the slaughter.”

The OccuBarn was a 15-foot high modular wooden structure erected by Occupy DC at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011. While an emergency General Assembly debated whether to comply with the Park Police order to disassemble the OccuBarn, police went ahead and cordoned off the structure. Several individuals engaged in autonomous action, stationing themselves inside it, while six climbed into the rafters, remaining there for a day-long stand-off with police until the final hold-out was plucked from the roof by a cherry-picker ten hours later.

Occupy DC attorney Jeff Light, who is representing the 14 defendants charged with low-level criminal offenses, filed a motion to dismiss on March 26 and a motion to concede on May 22. The prosecution’s deadline to respond to the motion to dismiss was April 9, which it missed. After the judge inquired twice, they indicated their intention to file in two weeks, a response which Judge Wingo described as “woefully inadequate.” She then issued an order requiring the government to file a motion by May 18, but, she noted, they didn’t even file a motion to “late file.”

As of Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecution still had not complied with the judge’s order, only two weeks before the trial scheduled for June 13. Judge Wingo said it was “the first time she had considered treating a motion as conceded.”

Without raising her voice but in an indignant tone, she proceeded to dress down the prosecution. “Was [Assistant Attorney General] Mr. Farrelly on bedrest for six weeks? What’s the explanation here?” she asked. She also reminded them, “This is not a run-of-the-mill case, [and] it’s going to take extreme organization.” In the most telling moment of exasperation, she said, “It appears to me that the government’s conduct here is so…lame.”

In contrast, she praised the defense, calling Jeff Light’s motion “clearly and concisely argued,” “nicely laid out,” and “very nicely written on a complex issue.” In considering sanctions on the prosecution, she consulted Light, asking him if he knew what measures would be appropriate in these cases.

Peter Saba, the prosecuting attorney, lobbied for a continuance as a sanction, but the judge thought that postponing trial would only penalize the defendants. “You’re saying, ‘our bad,'” she said to him. As he took the tongue-lashing, Saba sometimes revealed a lack of preparation for the proceedings, unaware of the contents of the motions and unwilling to commit to deadlines. He texted his office as the judge spoke to see if they could meet the Wednesday deadline she imposed. “Let me be clear,” she said. “It needs to be filed tomorrow at the latest.”

Still, she voiced her reluctance to concede the case on Constitutional grounds and declined to dismiss the case.

Jubilant defendants greeted counsel Jeff Light outside the courtroom with twinkle fingers, an Occupy signal of approval. Kelly Mears said, “I hope to see more of this… One side of this case cares more about this. This is not just a rote defense, but it is a rote prosecution.”

Caty McClure said she was “glad the judge is calling them out. It’s respect for the process.” But at the same time she said she felt “super disrespected” by the prosecution. Sophie Vick agreed. “My time was wasted,” she said. “I wanted to throw up my hands and storm out.”

Jeff Light however had a positive reaction. “Ignoring deadlines isn’t unusual,” he said. “I deal with this situation all the time. Government entities often don’t follow the rules.” And, he added, “Some judges are more tolerant than others. Judge Wingo took the appropriate tone.”

The prosecution is required to file a response to the motion to dismiss by May 30 and a response to the Bill of Particulars by June 5. It also must turn over additional information to the defense by June 1. The trial is scheduled for June 13-14 at DC Superior Court.

(Photo by cool revolution.net)

UPDATE: All the defendants are charged with “Failure to Obey – Emergency.” One defendant, David Givens, has two additional charges: “lewd, indecent or obscene acts” and disorderly conduct.

UPDATE 5/30/12: Ted Gest, Public Information Officer of the DC Attorney General’s Office, says that Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly has filed a response to the motion to dismiss in the case, meeting today’s deadline.

People’s Library at McPherson no more

The People’s Library at McPherson Park has been disassembled, all books packed up in crates and taken to the new Occupy DC Resource Center. The library staff made the decision to shut it down.

DC Mic Check zeroes in on the importance of the library in a February 18 article:

The DC People’s Library began in the first days of Occupy DC as little more than a handful of radical pamphlets on the back of a bike trailer. A couple of occupiers were  stationed on a bench with a sign reading, “ask an anarchist,” a precursor to the radical reference service now available in-person and online through the library. Within the first two weeks, a small shelf of donated books had appeared.

By the time Occupy DC was raided, the once-tiny library had become one of the camp’s most vibrant and well-established service tents. It had amassed nearly 2000 donated books – from contemporary politics and history to classics, comics, and a kid’s section – as well as numerous periodicals, pamphlets, and activist-oriented resources like the “safer spaces” binder.

Lately the library at McPherson has been plagued by rats and mold.

During the raid on Occupy DC by National Park Police on February 4, protestors linked arms, determined to defend the library at all costs, viewing it as the heart of the encampment.

With the dismantling of the library and the recent removal of Occupy DC’s information tent, only two tents remain at McPherson Park to make up the “24-hour vigil” presence.

A video tour of the library here.

And a photo of the library in happier days.

(Photos by coolrevolution.net)