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Otherwise Occupied

D.C. protesters take on... each other.

Back in May, five veteran protesters hatched a plan: The tenth anniversary of the deployment of American troops in Afghanistan was approaching, and they wanted to demonstrate their discontent. They’d start with a concert and a rally, and then the more hard-core protesters would stick around in tents through the winter. The protest would take place in Freedom Plaza, a rectangular, concrete park in downtown Washington. They designed a logo, ordered signs and t-shirts, and raised more than $30,000. It was set to begin on October 6.

Then, in July, the Canadian anti-consumerism magazine Adbusters floated an idea of its own: It called on readers to flood into lower Manhattan on September 17 and occupy Wall Street. Soon, “Occupy” protests were springing up all over the country. On October 1, Occupy D.C. kicked off in McPherson Square, a grassy park that takes up about two and a half acres of land near the White House. Bordered on the north side by K Street—Washington’s lobbying headquarters—the McPherson Square encampment was planned as a “direct echo” of the Wall Street protests, and it gradually developed all the same trappings: a food tent, a library, even a sukkah.

The protesters in Freedom Plaza were thrilled to have company from this upstart movement; for one thing, it meant that journalists were suddenly interested in covering left-wing gatherings. “Before, [the media] never would have shown up,” Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, one of the groups behind the Freedom Plaza demonstration, told me. The protest, which had been calling itself “The October2011 Movement” and “Stop the Machine,” also started going by a new name: Occupy D.C.

But that didn’t go over so well with the folks sleeping six blocks away in McPherson Square. On October 6, the McPherson group issued a press release stating, “We are not Stop the Machine and they are not Occupy DC” (though they went out of their way to emphasize that they respected the goals and efforts of the people there). The McPherson protesters also began furiously tweeting the message that the two protests were distinct. In fact, Twitter soon became a major source of contention between the groups, as they bickered over who could use the #occupyDC hashtag to advertise their activities.

Tensions seemed to cool somewhat with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the camps. Freedom Plaza reached out casually to the McPherson occupation, sitting in on their meetings and spending time in their area; after several days and some internal debate, the McPherson Square General Assembly—the nightly meeting at which protesters make decisions-responded by appointing liaisons to Freedom Plaza. On a recent Friday evening, I headed to McPherson Square to see if the peace was holding.

THE PARK THAT NIGHT was busier than I’d ever seen it, with about 100 protesters gathered in a circle by a large tree. A member of the group’s media team wheeled around a camera attached to a stroller and announced that the video of the general assembly meeting would be streamed live online.

The first two hours of the meeting covered topics such as cleaning the park and the possibility of bringing in solar panels. Eventually, discussion turned to the plan for the following morning: a march to nearby banks. The event would be a co-production of the Freedom Plaza and McPherson groups; it had been planned by a joint committee from both camps the previous afternoon. “At Freedom Plaza, they’re down for anything,” yelled one man in the back of the group clustered near the tree. This was confirmed a few minutes later, when a liaison from Freedom Plaza explained that he, along with others, planned to move furniture from inside the banks onto the sidewalk. A collective “whoa” issued from the crowd.

The McPherson occupiers started airing their concerns. “I would like to know what people involved in what I am getting involved in are planning to do,” said a blond guy with a messenger bag. Lots of people wiggled their fingers in the air—the gesture has become, in the culture of the Occupy protests, a sign of approval, although it most closely resembles jazz hands. More objections: “I dare you to find a constitutional argument for trespassing and grand larceny.” “We cannot put all of us at risk for the egos of a couple people at Freedom Plaza.” “We should not be dragged down by a group that is not aligned with the principles that we have agreed to here in this park.” “The decisions of Freedom Plaza’s action committee were not consensed upon”—“consensed” is one of the Occupy movement’s favorite verbs—“by us.” More finger wiggling.

An angry kid—dressed in a hoodie and a sideways cap—had been complaining that the group needed to respect “diversity of tactics.” He was shut down by the facilitator for speaking out of turn. By this point, it was almost 9 p.m. The meeting had been going on for nearly three hours. A “temperature check”—protesters were asked to wiggle their fingers up or down—confirmed that the group was not ready for this kind of escalation. Just when it seemed they might call off the joint march, the Freedom Plaza liaison got a message on his phone. “The plans have changed. They don’t still plan to remove furniture from buildings—so everything that we said, all our worries, are totally null and void.” The march would go on as originally planned.

THE EVENING HAD suggested one of the main differences between the Freedom Plaza and McPherson groups: The Freedom Plaza demonstrators tend to be older—many cut their teeth protesting Vietnam and the Iraq war—and a bit more radical. Wes Taylor, a twentysomething who’s starting a federal government job in November but has spent every day since October 1 at the McPherson occupation, described the Freedom Plaza camp as “institutional activism.” They favor confrontational tactics like storming the National Air and Space Museum to protest a drone exhibit—as they did October 8—or barging into a House Armed Services Committee hearing to shout at Leon Panetta. The crowd at McPherson Square, by contrast, is a bit more cautious. Its ranks generally grow in the evening, after protesters leave their white-collar jobs.

Still, not everyone sees major differences between the groups. I caught up with the angry kid from Friday night—his name turned out to be Yotam—two days after my evening in McPherson Square. He had been staying in McPherson—partly because of what K Street represents and partly because the grass there was more comfortable for sleeping—but he told me he thought the friction between the two camps was stupid, and he considers both to be Occupy D.C. “We’re here, they’re there, whatever,” he said. 

Esther Breger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.