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Why It’s No Surprise That Occupy DC Never Took Off

Occupy D.C. is nearing its end. Over the weekend, the National Park Service informed the occupiers of McPherson Square in downtown Washington that it would begin enforcing a ban on “camping” at noon on Monday, January 30. That meant no more eating and sleeping in the park—in other words, no more occupation. The “High Noon USA Park Police Showdown,” as one banner put it, didn’t materialize midday Monday, but judging from the assembled Park Police surrounding the park, it won’t be long until it does. Some campers anticipate a midnight eviction, a la Zuccotti Park. But either way, McPherson Square will soon be empty.

But though the protest is only just now being dismantled, its eulogy could have been written months ago. The movement’s inability to gain traction in Washington was evident soon after its launch. Occupy D.C. may have outlasted Occupy Wall Street, but it was never as evocative or influential. The protest in Zuccotti Park, stationed next to Wall Street, was a jolting reminder of corrosive income inequality, but the Occupy D.C. encampment stagnated into a sort of monument to itself.

In that way, it’s misleading to say that Occupy D.C. has failed. Indeed, it couldn’t fail, because it never had clear goals. Whenever we’ve strolled through the occupied park—TNR’s office is only a couple of blocks from McPherson Square—we’ve exited more confused than we entered. Today, as they faced possible eviction, protesters’ signs and chants addressed TARP, Iraq, health care, foreclosures, student debt, tax reform, imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, genocide, and the camp’s own possible disbandment. There were chants about the 99 percent, but there were also chants about Afghanistan. The only clear thread tying the D.C. protesters with the broader movement’s concerns about inequality was the fact that their group’s name includes the word “Occupy.”

Moreover, the protesters’ style was a poor fit for their city. Simply put, Washington, D.C. is a bad launching pad for a protest movement opposed to establishment politics. This city, for better and for worse, is for people who believe in the establishment. It’s home to several major universities, mainstream media outlets, and think tanks—and, most important, to the federal government. Its professional class is made up of people who believe (some earnestly, some cynically) in the legitimacy of establishment organs. The culture prefers reformers to radicals and insiders to outsiders. Its political class—government officials, lobbyists, political consultants, think tank experts, issue advocates, and opinion journalists—is divided on the issues, but united in accepting the legitimacy of Washington’s structure. Contrast that insistently professional aesthetic with the rejectionism of the Occupiers, and it’s easy to see why the movement had difficulty catching on here. Even the city’s most earnest young crusaders, who share the movement’s concerns and have made the 99 percent cause their own, were turned off by the group’s radical, outsider posture. They may be devout liberals, but rebels they are not. Or, as one protester, a federal employee named Pat, told us, “A lot of people come to D.C. to work within the system, good or bad.”

What it lacked in galvanized youth, Occupy D.C. made up for in semi-professional activists. (The concurrent Stop The Machine movement, an off-shoot of ODC, was almost entirely run by veteran protesters.) There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But part of what made Occupy Wall Street so refreshing was that, amidst “End the Fed” Ron Paulites and steadfast Zizekians, one found recent college graduates and unemployed family men, dissenting for the first time. At McPherson Square, however, the occupiers were not everyday people radicalized by events. They were permanent dissenters, the people who never believed in politics and elite institutions to begin with. When it comes to the people who make up a protest movement, there is an important difference between the radical and the radicalized.

Occupy D.C. will not go down with merely a whimper. Today, occupiers defiantly pitched a gigantic “tent of dreams” atop the park’s statue of James McPherson, leaving only the head and torso of the Civil War General peeking out. (On the lookout, we assume, for Park Rangers.) “This is what democracy looks like!” they chanted.

When the inevitable eviction takes place, much of the camp will resist, but the park will be cleared. It is a sign of both the movement’s strength and its weakness that there will be no serious reason to mourn. Income inequality, an issue that once mattered only to earnest liberals, is now openly discussed by both parties. It may even prove to be the issue that frames the next presidential election. “Occupy” and “99 percent” have permanently infiltrated not only the country’s political lexicon, but its imagination and conversation too. That is what democracy looks like.

Nathan Pippenger and Simon van Zuylen-Wood are reporter-researchers at The New Republic.