Married to the Mob

It may make sense for OWS protesters to end the occupations—but they just don’t want to.

Occupy DC.
Melinda, an Occupy D.C. protester, sits with her dog outside an encampment in Washington’s McPherson Square

Photograph by David Weigel/Slate.

By mid-morning, the campers of Occupy D.C. were some of the last people not caught up on the events in New York City. At about 1 a.m., New York police had begun dismantling the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park. At 8 a.m., images from the protests were on every cable news network. At about 9:30 a.m., when I got to the McPherson Square in downtown Washington, most Occupiers were still in the tents that cover three-quarters of the green space. The news was just beginning to trickle in.

“Do you know the latest from New York?” asked Alan Ball, who’d come to Washington after leaving his English as a Second Language teaching gig in Tampa. “We’re piecing it together. I’m hearing most of it from reporters.”

In New York there was a pitched battle, reporters being physically dragged away from the story, confirmed then debunked then confirmed reports. In D.C. there’s a camp. There’s some new angst about a possible night raid; there are contingency plans to survive it and come back. There’s a reading library built with packing crates, so it can be moved quickly. There’s a medic tent and plenty of free food. “I think I’ve actually gained weight since I got here,” said a protester with anime-character red hair who will only give her first name, Melinda.

The protesters have few small problems. What they have is one big problem. Even if the cops don’t crack down, and the city lets them stay—and that’s where things were at on Tuesday—then what’s to gain from continuing the occupation? Why stay in the parks?

That’s the discussion that the Occupy intelligentsia (no, I’m not inventing that phrase) is having right now. On Monday night, right before the New York raid, a new “tactical briefing” went up at AdBusters. The Canadian consumerism-smashing magazine, whose editors had dreamed up the Occupation way back in February, raised two possibilities for the movement’s future.

“STRATEGY #1: We summon our strength, grit our teeth and hang in there through winter,” wrote the magazine’s Culture Jammers. “STRATEGY #2: We declare “victory” and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we’ve come, the comrades we’ve made, the glorious days ahead.” Choose Door No. 2, and most of the movement goes to the “high ground.”

It sounded like a good idea to Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News who just published the first e-book about the Occupy movement, a history of the Oct. 1 march from Manhattan to Brooklyn, when 700 protesters were arrested.

“I think the large-scale occupation was necessary to keep the focus on inequality,” said Bunch. “But the flaws are starting to outweigh the strengths. Now, it should be direct action against banks, etc., and maybe even nuturing a few of their own to run in 2012 elections.”

I got the same take from Rich Yeselson, a labor organizer who’d been optimistic about the protests when they started. “It should not be a priority to take back the park, or any other public spaces in cities around the country,” Yeselson said. “If the movement can’t exist without occupation, then it wasn’t really a movement in the first place. It was merely an episode with some significant rhetorical and political impact.”

Sure, there’s a lot to recommend the declare-victory-and-go-home strategy. If you’re looking at Occupy as a political cause, like the Tea Party, then the last few weeks of stories about ugliness inside the camps and videos of police shutting them down are risky. Just look at the poll from October in which “the 99 percent” played better than “Occupy Wall Street.” A majoritarian message can be muddied and erased if it’s tied to something that the average American recoils at. This hasn’t really changed since Richard Nixon riffed on the “Silent Majority.” It’s what Democrats counted on as they trashed the Tea Party, too.

So there you go: You’ve got polls and experts saying the camps can come down now. Just try and tell that to the Occupiers.

“I’m going back,” said Jesse Le Greca, who’d become one of the movement’s most visible members after a video of him debating a Fox News reporter went viral. “I feel it is important to claim a space, but if we are not allowed to use the First Amendment at Zuccotti we will certainly find another visible location. The First Amendment is not up for negotiation, even if mayors like [Mike] Bloomberg or [Oakland’s Jean] Quan decide to treat their respective police forces as if they were their own personal praetorian guards.”

Thousands of people who want to resist the state and the capitalist system aren’t going to stop doing it because the system pushes back. It’s an encouragement. That was the tone at Occupy D.C. Nobody I talked to wanted to hear about the crazy “stop occupying” theory.

“Even if they do try and push us out,” said Prince Dagom-bey, who sported a Moorish headwrap, “we’re gonna put ourselves back. That’s our tactic. We want to maintain what we held.”

But why maintain it? The best explanation came from Alan Ball.

“It’s a symbol to show we have the right to be here,” said Ball. “It’s the people’s land. Also, for political reasons, it’s a slap in the face of the people in power to be here. We’re not above the law here, but we don’t agree with a lot of the laws here. Trespassing. All the little things—you can’t put your bike on that fence.” He pointed to a fence that guarded the statue of the Civil War general who leant his name to the park. “We’re not lawless, but there are no laws. That’s our goal, to create a new form of society, a new form of community, where we don’t need external laws to tell us how to live.”

No quick political strategy there. To some protesters, the camps have becomes ends unto themselves. The presence of homeless people in the park was a feature, not a bug. “We’re learning a lot from the homeless about how to get weatherized,” said Ball. Another Occupier, Melinda, showed me tents that had gone up on pallets, to keep them from absorbing the chill of the earth. The camps would stay up, even if Zuccotti was permanently unoccupied.

“If they shut that down, it really doesn’t matter,” said Melinda. “That was the inspiration for all of this, and this is going to keep going.”

It was going strong for the rest of Tuesday. The Zuccotti story had sent at least a dozen reporters—that’s just the ones I counted—back to McPherson Square for fresh quotes. The camp, not the demands, were the story. At 5 p.m., the Occupiers gathered for a “general assembly” to get briefed on what happened and plan a new action: a march to the D.C. offices of the real estate company that owns Zuccotti, continuing on to the headquarters of the United States Conference of Mayors (to protest Bloomberg), ending at the White House, to get the president (not in the country right now) to take a stand.

As the night approached, the Occupiers used the so-called “People’s Microphone” to announce that in Washington, at least, their occupation of public space had official government support.

“Mic check!”

Mic check!

“The D.C. Council has just stated!”

The D.C. Council has just stated!

“That our occupation at McPherson Square!”

That our occupation at McPherson Square!

“Is in no danger, as far as they see it!”

Is in no danger, as far as they see it!