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.

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This is not an eviction

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

(Image by Mike Isaacson)

Video: Riot Police Violently Evict Occupy DC

Occupy DC: “This is not an eviction”

Capt. Phil Beck of US Park Police, Brian Eister and Occupier Charlie in heated exchange

Let’s be clear, when US Park Police entered McPherson Park before dawn today, they planned on evicting Occupy DC.

But that’s not what they told Occupiers, or reporters. “This is not an eviction,” said Sgt. David Schlosser of the Park Police. In a statement issued this evening, Occupy DC more accurately described it as a “slow-motion eviction.”

From the beginning, it was a containment strategy employed by Park Police intended to minimize violence and avoid the massive push-back that police have experienced while conducting Occupy evictions in other cities. In this respect, the Park Police was both clever and downright mendacious.

After Park Police officers arrived in overwhelming force, not surprisingly they first turned their attention to the large “Tent of Dreams” which has decorated the statue of General McPherson all week. Occupiers agreed to remove the tent themselves and allow police to conduct a “compliance inspection” of the park.

Throughout the day, this word was endlessly repeated: “compliance.” The camp was supposed to bring its tents into compliance with the Park Service’s regulations. The meaning of “in compliance” shifted with each passing hour as Park Police enacted a carefully planned charade.

At first, inspectors only removed “camping material” from tents, defining it as bedding such as sleeping bags. Belongings were bagged and marked with property slips. Then the standard altered. The definition of bedding was stretched to a yoga mat. Every tent considered to have some violation was deemed “not in compliance,” then taken down. Police declared that completely empty tents were in compliance, yet some empty tents were taken down amyway, such as the teepee on the south side of the park, which a forklift carried away.

Nonetheless, Occupiers scrambled to meet the shifting standards, taking pictures and video of tents being cleaned out to have evidence in hand to prove they were empty before police reached them. By this time, everything was being thrown wholesale into trash compactor trucks.

Acknowledgment of betrayal spread gradually, until it became obvious that Park Police exceeded their purported mission. Large swaths of the park were being cleared. Brian Eister was one Occupier who negotiated with police. As the morning progressed and police officers’ words contradicted their actions, he began to see through the charade. “They’re lying to our faces, and they know they’re lying.”

He got an impassive response. Sgt. Todd Reid repeatedly intoned, “I’m not in charge here, not by any stretch of the imagination.” The I’m-just-following-orders line was used all day like one of the metal barricades placed around the park to cordon off the crowd.

Later across a barricade, Brian shouted, “I defended the Park Service, and you fucking lied. You know you lied to me. I told them you would treat us right!” Soon afterwards he launched a kamikaze mission by breaching a barricade to purposefully get arrested. He reportedly shouted at Captain Phil Beck, the commanding officer, “You’re a liar, you’re a liar!”

When asked why the police would lie to a negotiator like Brian, Occupy DC’s lawyer Jeff Light said, “That’s what they do.”

Still, even in light of the whole day’s events, ultimately the eviction of Occupy DC was a surprise. In comparison to the restraint and planning applied earlier, the sudden outbreak of violence at 5pm seemed uncharacteristically out of control. The eviction became official as Park Police officers pushed everyone out of McPherson Square and read notices which said, “The park is closed.”

“This is not an eviction,’ they said in the early morning light.

I suggested before that Park Police used the lie-in-your-face strategy to minimize violence. They probably thought they were justified. In fact, briefly seeing the apparent sincerity in Captain Beck’s face, I must believe that they were thoroughly convinced in their mission to protect. Yet that very conviction belies the complete contempt with which they held the members of Occupy DC and their goals. Deception was the key strategy of the day, to make the Occupiers believe that they had some control over the situation when in fact they had no control, to lull them into compromise and peaceful submission–“compliance.”

Park Police held all the cards by virtue of sheer force. The answer to the question “Why do they lie?” shouldn’t be “That’s what they do.” Protestors are not murderers, terrorists or criminals. Police should not be liars. When First Amendment rights are bulldozed, in violation of recent court rulings, it stings with the betrayal we feel when authority can and does arbitrarily choose not to operate in good faith. It reveals the true impotence we citizens have in the face of power, when in a democracy we ought to hold the reins. Above all, we should not be required to be “in compliance.”

(Image by coolrevolution.net)

Occupy DC: Change is in the wind

Gusts of wind blow over a sign at Occupy DC-McPherson Park

The director of the National Park Service said Tuesday at a Congressional Oversight hearing that U.S. Park Police will “very soon” begin enforcing no-camping policy at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. At the same time he emphasized their First Amendment rights to conduct protest vigils on federal land.

Although the Park Service this week has sought to clarify the meaning of enforcement of no-camping rules, the ramifications for Occupy DC are still uncertain.

Director Jarvis made it clear that he would not order wholesale eviction of Occupy DC at either site short of an emergency situation. But the Park Service’s position has evolved over the week–or at least the clarification of it–and the current form of Occupy DC seems even more threatened.

Sleeping in the park is now a no-no. Go to sleep in your tent and you risk a Park Police officer giving you a citation. The Park Service spokesman encouraged the protesters to sleep elsewhere. Given the number of homeless occupying the parks, this could pose a problem.

On Friday, the National Park Service posted notices at both Freedom Plaza and McPherson Park warning that it would begin enforcing no-camping rules beginning at noon on Monday, January 30.

The Washington Post reports:

To comply with the no-camping rules, protesters must remove all evidence of camping, including bedding, storage containers and anything used to make a fire, the Park Service said. If the protesters don’t comply, they may be arrested and their property seized.

The notice itself states:

While temporary structures or tents are allowed in the park under some circumstances, camping is not permitted…To allow for visual inspection and monitoring, all temporary structures and tents must have at least one open side.

But some Occupiers see no-camping enforcement as just a different method of eviction.

So the question is, will the Park Police enter McPherson Park and Freedom Plaza on Monday with the order to seize sleeping bags and personal belongings? And if so, what will the response by Occupiers be? Given how passionate the inhabitants of Occupy DC are about defending their community, their protest, and for many their only home at the moment, I can guarantee that there will be resistance.

OccupyDC and the OccuBarn

I spent several hours today at McPherson Park, the K St. encampment site of OccupyDC. They erected the skeleton of a building which they contend was built according to standards for a temporary structure. Capitol Park Police arrived Sunday morning to give notice that it had to be taken down. A day-long stand-off ensued.