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.”

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.

Occupy DC: Beyond tents

Occupy DC needs to think about how it will function without a camp at McPherson Park.  Of course, there hasn’t been a camp in the same way since February 4 when police conducted a “compliance inspection” and tore down two-thirds if not more of the tents–and began enforcing the no-camping policy in earnest. This was essentially an eviction, even if it didn’t follow the narrative of Occupation evictions in other cities. Freedom Plaza followed the next day with a quieter raid and tear-down.

Since then the camp and consequently Occupy DC have evolved. Tents which sheltered a bonded community of both activists and homeless then became a symbolic “vigil protest” where no one could sleep. Even as many Occupiers scrambled to find housing–and all mourned the loss of the round-the-clock community so many had invested their hearts and souls into building–inevitable questions of “What’s next for Occupy?” arose. The media concluded that it was hunkered down for the winter and would re-emerge in the spring. This wasn’t really accurate. Direct actions–usually “targeted occupations”–continued without much interruption. Internal conflicts were and are a constant drag on energy and enthusiasm–and have driven some people away–but Occupy DC was never in danger of dying. It might have gasped, but it never choked.

Several initiatives have been undertaken: Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Faith, a conference on corporate personhood and campaign finance, a week of Earth Day activity, loads of working groups tackling issues such as criminal justice and budget autonomy/statehood for the District. Occupy DC has taken part in nationwide actions like Shutdown the Corporations targeting ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. And Occupy DC isn’t the only Occupy game in town–Occupy Education is spear-headed by American University students, and groups of students at other local universities like George Mason and Georgetown have an Occupy-related focus.

Direct actions and targeted occupations in the last few months have continued at a furious pace. Bank of America is the object of the Sleepful Protest, with protestors tucked in nearly every night at one branch or another around town. Protests and marches have been non-stop (sometimes coordinated with other groups)–at Monsanto, BP, the World Bank and IMF, the Department of Justice, and Freddie Mac, just to name a (very) few.

Occupy DC bustled during the American Spring, and it culminated in May Day–locally, a joint venture with unions to celebrate a workers’ holiday and bring labor issues to the forefront. A few hundred people gathered at Malcolm X Park and marched to the White House. That’s good numbers for Occupy in the District these days. But in comparison with other major Occupy hubs like New York, Oakland and Chicago where thousands took to the streets, it was a paltry turnout.

Occupy DC took a further step in evolution when Freedom Plaza decided to dismantle and merge with McPherson. And recently there was a serious encroachment on space at the park when the Park Service decided to plant grass and put in flower beds. With its greatly reduced number of tents, McPherson has provided some shelter from the elements (but not housing) and visibility for the movement in the heart of the lobbying district. It’s been a meeting place, a place to hang out, and a hub for information. It may be less of an information provider in the future since Park Police demolished the information tent, and there’s no plan to replace it. Coincidentally, Occupy DC finally realized its plan to get office space. The Occupy Resource Center (housed at the Institute for Policy Studies on 16th and L Streets), however, has a different function than McPherson. It isn’t about community-building, visibility or hanging out. The motto is “Getting Shit Done.” The two similarities are that it will serve as a meeting place and sleeping is verboten.

There’s a possibility that the Park Service will ban tents altogether, for whatever reason–re-sodding the north side of the park, or just deciding that Occupy’s time is up. In any case, May Day was a turning point. The American Spring is nearly over, and the American Summer is about to begin. Occupy DC is going to have find ways to Occupy–to be a presence and maintain visibility–without defending a space, to be effective without dispersing its energy in a thousand different directions. Most of all, it needs to bring in more people who believe in the core issues of Occupy–economic inequality and intolerable corruption in politics–to swell its numbers. People questioned the viability of Occupy DC after the winter eviction, but now may be the crucial moment determining the future of the movement in the District.

(Photo by coolrevolution.net)

Info Tent goes down again

National Park Police removed Occupy DC’s information tent at McPherson Park this morning about 9 am. Given that there was some noticeable excessive drinking at the camp this weekend with liquor splashed around the info tent, the first guess was that the Park Police were responding to those incidents.

But Sgt. Paul Brooks of the NPP said that someone was “camping” this morning in the info tent–clarifying that he meant sleeping–and that “it’s procedure” to remove tents in those cases. The Park Police has been enforcing 24-hour no-sleeping rules since the February 4 raid. Officers however rarely go so far as to take down a tent when an occupant is sleeping; they’re more likely to poke or kick the sleeper awake.

Sgt. Brooks also said that they were no plans to remove other tents, that officers would only do so if they were not “in compliance.”

The info tent was also removed on March 29 and immediately replaced with another. It sparked bad feelings, and Occupiers took to the streets that evening to protest with plenty of personal animosity toward Sgt. Reid, who gave the order to fell the tent.

Update:

From DC Mic Check: “According to occupiers, the tent will not be replaced and the services formerly provided by the tent will be split between two locations”–the adjacent food tent and the new Occupy Resource Center.

This time around, the reaction seems to be less contentious: “Spirits in the park remain high. [According to Georgia Pearce,] ‘Getting that [tent] cleared out I think is not altogether a bad thing.'”

(Photo by coolrevolution.net)

“Give us our rights and we’ll give you the streets!”

Occupy DC takes to the streets during rush hour in response to the Park Police’s unnanounced search and seizure of tents in McPherson Park that day.

Park Police, Occupy DC renew antagonism

Holdover friction from the February 4th raid on McPherson Park was renewed today as Park Police removed two tents, including the information tent. According to Sgt. Reid of the Park Police, the tents were “not in compliance” and contained bedding and personal items such as clothing. “They just won’t listen,” he added.

According to fliers distributed by the National Park Service, NPP regulations define camping as “use of park land for living accommodation purposes such as sleeping activities, or making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings, or making any fire, or using any tents or shelter…”

Participants of the Occupy DC protest strongly objected to the removal of the tents. They immediately pitched a new, larger one to serve as the information desk.

This is not an eviction

Captain Phil Beck backpedals on “negotiation” at McPherson Square, February 4, 2012.

(Image by Mike Isaacson)

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.

Occupy DC: The day after the raid


McPherson Park was muddy on Sunday and reeked of manure left by horses of the mounted Park Police from the previous day’s raid. Two mounted police remained and kept a relaxed vigil near the stacks of steel barricades, while Park Service workers scraped mud off of the sidewalks.

The park was significantly cleared out but several individual tents still stood, mainly on the west side of the park. People clustered around the library, untouched after being vigorously defended the day before.

A well-attended General Assembly gathered on the south lawn at 4pm.

(Images by coolrevolution.net)