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

McPh_closedfences
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.

 

“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.

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.

 

 

Occupation at McPherson Park ends, but Occupy movement in DC continues

The National Park Service moved in Tuesday morning to remove the last vestiges of the Occupy DC protest at McPherson Park. Park Service employees loaded debris into two trucks as several Park Police officers–including the familiar Sgt. Reid–stood watch at the foot of the statue of General McPherson. The last two nights the protest structures, including tents, signs and art, were demolished.

McPherson Park hadn’t served as a full-fledged Occupation since February 4, when Park Police raided it and removed the majority of tents. Subsequently, officers patrolled to enforce a no-sleeping policy.

The last month has seen the further detachment of Occupy DC from the park, as ithe number of tents shrank and the group acquired office space nearby, sponsored by union SEIU.

Some Occupiers no longer took pride in what remained of the often messy camp and wanted to clear it themselves. One of the witnesses to the Park Services’s clean-up operation, a homeless man named RB, said Occupy DC lacked control over who was hanging out in their protest space.

“When you start a revolution of sorts you don’t put out an application,” he said. “There could be hangers on the fringe who are not part of the movement.” He complained of heavy drug use.

Several of those affiliated with Occupy DC have contended that the McPherson camp was a tactic and that its termination doesn’t represent the health of the movement itself.

McPherson laid waste

Early Monday morning the remaining Occupy DC tents were demolished, debris scattered throughout the park. First reports blame six intoxicated men with laying waste to the park.

At 8:30am, John Zangas tweeted that several people “became rambunctious” and tore down every structure in the park.

The four remaining tents consisted of the library, the former information tent, a personal tent and a storage tent containing art and supplies. The majority of the books had already been removed from the library. At first glance, the only things missing were the finely lettered signs recently installed by Barry Knight.

At 11am, only one person was trying to clean up. Sweet, originally from Occupy Eugene and lately of Occupy DC, was trying to “consolidate” the mess.

As people mingled after Occupy DC’s People’s Summit on Sunday evening, one person proposed removing the tents and invited someone to block the proposal. The gathering was not a general assembly.

UPDATE: The tornado-like damage inflicted on McPherson last night seems to be only one part of a larger narrative unfolding within Occupy DC. While it is unconfirmed exactly who demolished what remained of the Occupy DC camp at the park, what is clear is that attitudes of Occupiers toward their Occupation site have dramatically changed.

The Sleepful Protest at Bank of America on Vermont and L was reportedly notified of the damage between 4 and 5am, yet only one person (again reportedly) went to check it out.

The news went out on Twitter early in the morning, yet by 11am only one person was in the park cleaning up debris.

Compare this response to late January, when the Tent of Dreams served as a clarion call of defiance directed toward the National Park Service, who seemed poised to evict Occupy DC from the park at any moment. Hundreds flocked to McPherson when summoned.

This is also a dramatic difference from late March, when Park Police tore down the information tent. The anger and defiance was so great, DC Occupiers took to the streets that very evening in protest.

There has been significant debate lately within Occupy DC whether to continue its presence at McPherson. Cleanliness has been a problem, and many people drink alcohol at night, leading to arrests. This appearance and behavior reflect poorly on Occupy DC.

Still, many people strongly support the tactic of Occupation. “Occupying a public space is important no matter what any body says,” Feriha Kaya said, responding to the destruction. “Have you heard of any Occupation that has taken down its own tents?”

[Note: On April 18, Occupy New Haven decided to disassemble tents after a court ruling against them. The decision sparked internal dissent, and twelve New Haven Occupiers were arrested resisting the dismantlement of their camp. (hat tip: @msamricth)]

UPDATE: Livestreamers Carlisle and Austin Dalton erect what they call the “McPherson Fortress.”

“They [the people who wanted the park destroyed] can kiss my ass,” Austin says.