The video is titled “Occupy DC Pushes Grandma Down Stairs.” The conservative blog Powerline links to it with the title “Rampaging Occupiers Attack 78-Year Old Woman.” That’s not quite what happened, but it’s the official story out of the conference, a rallying cry for Tea Partiers against the Occupiers. In the culture war between the left and right over who can save the economy, this round goes to the Tea Party.
Occupy protesters will tell you that it wasn’t supposed to get ugly. Progressive activists had known for months that Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group chaired by the industrialist/philanthropist David Koch, would spend the first weekend of November in Washington for its Defending the American Dream Summit. It was a soft, bloated target.
Progressives have been protesting the Koch apparatus all year. In January, they’d marched outside the semiannual invite-only political summit that David and his brother Charles (combined net worth: $32 billion) put on for fellow Masters of the Universe. In February, the gonzo journalist Ian Murphy posed as “David Koch” on the phone to draw Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into a lengthy, awkward, recorded conversation about how to crush protesters. They had “changed the conversation” about the Kochs, prompting stories about Republican “ties” to the brothers, as if they were capos of some criminal enterprise.
“The Koch brothers are at the head of the snake,” Occupy protester Cecilia Azurduy told me, “but what they represent is a lot more insidious—this idea that humankind is greedy, and we can only succeed if we’re trying to get more for ourselves. We were protesting their promotion of radical, neo-liberal, free market ideas which have been proven to fail people.”
They wouldn’t get into the convention center, so they wouldn’t get a clear idea of what they were protesting. AFP has an operating budget in the mid-eight digits, and at its annual conferences, it shows. AFPers collected handsome leather binders branded with an AFP logo and lined with info sheets and swag and free T-shirts (size L only) with AFP’s new slogan (“SOS: Sick of Spending”). They gazed upon crisply designed banners and an electronic billboard. They were wooed by two Republican presidential candidates.
It was swank. It was also obsessed with Occupy Wall Street. The Occupiers had been around for only six weeks, and already they were public enemies. They were getting on David Koch’s nerves. “You see the left trying to rejuvenate itself at the grassroots,” said Tim Phillips, the president and public face of AFP, opening up the conference in that massive ballroom. “The Occupy Wall Street movement offers our nation a crystal-clear choice between what the radical left’s vision is for this nation and what AFP and our Tea Party allies’ vision is. They openly call for socialism and they disparage job creators!” He offered a warning, too. “Often, the Occupy Wall Street movement has called for and resulted in violence. They break the law.”
This was the mood when the Occupiers got to the convention center. There was also their lack of plans.
As it happened, more Occupiers showed up than anyone expected. They got mocked and name-checked as, inside the convention center, AFP celebrated its “Tribute to Ronald Reagan” dinner. Outside, the Occupiers realized that they could surround the building and prevent Tea Partiers from getting out. This was when the trouble began. One group ran up to an entrance, closed off by security, and banged on the doors as Flipcams filmed them. Other groups yelled at a video reporter who had turned a camera on them.
Inside the building, AFPers were warned about the shenanigans and told to stick around. Some of them tried to head out anyway, and one of them was Dolores Broderson, a 78-year-old retiree from Michigan.
Broderson was held off by protesters who’d linked their arms to block the doors. Helped by a friend, she tried to move past them. Seconds later, she was sprawled out on the ground, with a bump on her head and a bloody nose. “All of a sudden, they opened their arms,” she later told me. “I went flying down the stairs.”
A video on YouTube misses the moment when the Occupiers move and Broderson falls. It does show several seconds of her trying to get her bearings and shows AFPers telling the Occupiers off.
“They’re the ones doing this shit!” says one AFPer.
“Why are you attacking old ladies?” says another.
On Saturday morning, back inside AFP, the speakers take the high ground. “We’re gonna be respectful and civil,” says Tim Phillips, “unlike the left wing nuts last night.”
Outside the ballroom, some of the AFPers are still rattled. There were countless short Zapruder films showing different angles of the moment a car driven by one of their own gunned it in front of an Occupier and showing moments when Occupiers shouted obscenities at AFPers. I talked to Caleb Hays, Gavin Kreidler, and Jerrod Mendicki, College Republicans from Kansas who tried to keep their distance from the shouting crowd. Hays showed me an iPhone video clip of the mob of Occupiers moving toward the car as it drove off. It’s hard to see.
“I stayed pretty far away,” he said, “because when we moved closer, they were shouting stuff like, ‘Fuck AFP.’ I felt like I was going to be injured, just for my beliefs. That’s completely un-American.”
“When I was in high school,” said Kreidler, “I was at a big pro-Iraq War rally in Wichita. And that wasn’t even violent.”
“People want to compare the Tea Party and this movement,” said Hays, “but you can’t do that after last night.”
McPherson Square, the home base of Occupy D.C., is only seven blocks from the convention center. I headed over there to reconstruct the mess from Occupiers’ accounts. Steve Hartwell, a former construction worker from Richmond (he quit the job to come up here), recalled some events and explained how he became one of the few people arrested.
“I saw the cops start to let the driver go after the car hit one of us,” he explained. “I walked up to the cop like this.” (He demonstrated by holding up the middle fingers of both hands.)
How did he feel about the scuffling and shouting? What did he think of the plight of people like Dolores Broderson, who ended up going to the hospital for a head injury?
“Some of them I talk to and seem like fine people,” said Hartwell. “Some of them seem like total assholes. It was not the best situation to understand the other, which is important. Yeah. There probably should be some more understanding.”
“In some ways it was a success,” said Drew Franklin, an audio engineer who’d been part of the protests. “And in other ways … well, I’d say we learned that we need to do more planning.”
Back at the convention center, the ugly stories from Friday night were circulating. The most popular afternoon session, with dozens of people grabbing floor space when chairs run out, was hosted by Andrew Breitbart. In his morning speech he ripped into the Occupiers, “freaks” embarrassing themselves with “rape and public masturbation.” Later, he gleefully mocked the movement.
“Let’s have a general assembly consensus,” Breitbart said. “Twinkle fingers up!”
Everyone lifted their hands and wiggled their fingers, a parody of the Occupy organizing tactic.
“First issue on the docket is rape,” says Breitbart. “Should we allow rape to happen at the Tea Party?”
They wiggle their fingers toward the ground, meaning no.
“OK, we’re already different than them.”
Breitbart later sought out Dolores Broderson to tell her he was sorry for what happened to her and to ask her how she was doing. She was healing. AFP gave her a plane ride home to spare her the possible jostling she would have gotten on her AFP bus ride. It would be OK.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re now a martyr of our cause. Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn’t care about you. If this were the other way around, you’d be on ABC News, live. It’d be a media circus.”