Bringing Down the House

Occupy D.C. builds a fort; cops tear it down. Did they send a message about foreclosures?

Protesters watch as police attempt to get Occupy DC protesters down from a makeshift barn.
Protesters watch as police attempt to get Occupy DC protesters down from a makeshift barn.

Photograph by David Weigel.

The gift arrived at McPherson Square right after 11 p.m. Saturday, and the Occupiers got to work right away. Occupy D.C. had been waiting for this one—$1,400 worth of wood, four large sections that would make a sort of church on the grassy, less-occupied south side of the square. The architect, an Occupier named Paul (no last name, thanks), designed it on weekends, and then helped 30 or so protesters raise it. Some nails, some hammers, two hours of work, and presto, Occupy D.C. had a barn, all ready to be covered with plastic and to start hosting “general assembly” meetings when the weather got cold.

It was a beautiful dream, and it died in a day. The barn would be taken apart and trashed after 31 Occupiers were arrested for refusing to leave it. The last holdout, a protester named David—yes, as in “and Goliath”—held off the cops as long as he could but was eventually taken to jail after relieving himself on the high-quality roof beams. Paul watched from the penned-off area that gradually filled up with Occupiers, shouting messages of solidarity until police took control of the barn and started scrapping it.

“The police put it in the dump,” he groaned on Monday. “They threw it away. It’s just so typical. They don’t reuse. They don’t think. They just have their orders. They don’t care about those trees. We put it up in two hours, and we could have taken it down in one hour, saved all of that wood.”

It was never going to be easy for a camping-based protest movement to make it through a winter. Cold weather stopped Napoleon, so why wouldn’t it stop a bunch of Occupiers? It’s possible to occupy a state capitol for a few weeks and get a steady stream of supporters willing to take turns camping. That was what happened 11 months ago in Wisconsin, for a pro-labor movement that quickly moved from protest to politics. But who can stand to stay outside, in tents, for months at a time? Who’s going to keep parks occupied for the long haul? The answer: performance artists, and people for whom a few hours of jail and $100 fines are totally worth it if they help promote the cause.

These people took command of the barn situation right away. On Saturday morning, around 10:45 a.m., police showed up in the park and asked protesters to take it down.

“We had an impromptu GA [general assembly] and we couldn’t come to a consensus,” remembered Sam Jewler, a member of Occupy D.C.’s media committee. “There were people who wanted it to come down, people who wanted to sustain it. So we basically decided to have everyone do what they wanted to do, have autonomous action.”*

Around 11:30 a.m., police formed a line around the barn and warned that anyone who stayed inside would be subject to arrest. The holdouts, including David and the lion-maned Adrian Parsons—a man who had previously made news for circumcising himself, live, at an art installation—did what came naturally. They occupied. Fifteen people attempted to join in, right as police were closing off the barn area with tape (and later fences). They were arrested. A standoff began, with the barn Occupiers deciding to “fight” instead of break down the structure.

For the next nine hours, there were two questions in the Occupy-verse. Would police break down the whole camp, thanks to these barn people? And what was going to happen to the folks in the barn? Rumors spread wildly as police cordoned off half the park with tape, creating a zone that only they, their horses, and their vehicles could access. The rest of the Occupiers, joined occasionally by tourists, stood along the fences and police tape, in front of the statue of Gen. James McPherson.

“For the first time,” shouted Parsons, legs locked onto the roof beams, “I’m as tall as General McPherson! You all look beautiful.”

There was nothing else to talk about. Around 5 p.m., police sent a building inspector into the structure, and one of the holdouts “mike checked” the crowd to inform us of a negotiation that might “keep this here legally.”

I wandered over to the Occupy D.C. information tent, where a few veteran campers bemoaned the attention.

“You know what’s happening?” asked Tracy Wall, a middle-aged Occupier who was staying away from the commotion. “The 1 percent is leading us down the valley. And we’re not stopping it. The rest of the 98 percent is going, We’re powerless to stop what they’re doing.”

Wall had just referred to the far edge of the Occupy movement as its own 1 percent. “I like these people,” Wall said to me, “but it makes me crazy. Now, I’ve got to go back to my tent—I cornered a rat.”

Back at the structure, the 16 holdouts claimed that police were rigging the game. Big orange “danger” stickers were slapped on the wooden walls. Police tape encircled the structure; one protester ripped off a strip of it, to use as a headband. The holdouts told the crowd that police were negotiating “in bad faith,” and they broadcast the name of the officer they were dealing with, Lt. Robert LaChance. The Occupiers’ legal observer, Ann Wilcox, told me she was surprised at the “bad faith” talk—“I’ve worked with him for years.”

But the tone was set. There was no interest in violence, not even as the Occupiers inside the barn were put under arrest, leaving only the five people who’d climbed on the roof beams. A stocky man jogged around the park asking if anyone else wanted to cross the police barricade with him. “Come on,” he sighed. “Nobody?” No, nobody. Instead, the supporters in the free zone “mike checked” the First Amendment and the police code of honor. “This is for you!” they shouted at the officers in front of the barn. The officers stayed expressionless behind shielded helmets. As it grew darker, they got the tools they needed to remove the protesters—a cherry picker, an armored car, a giant inflatable cushion in case anyone wanted to jump off.

“This is ridiculous,” said a supporter named Asantewaa Nkruma-Ture, who gawked at the showdown from on top a park bench. “There are dilapidated houses where people have wanted building inspectors to come for years. They keep calling, no one comes. This house goes up, and they’re here the same day!”

The standoff was ending. It was just taking a while to end. The fact that the holdouts were performers with nothing to lose was going to keep it dragging. One Occupier taunted police, jumping down to the armored car, shaking his booty, and scrambling back out of reach. VIDEO HERE

It couldn’t last. The booty-shaker eventually gave in and jumped on the air mattress, which on Twitter had become known as the “First Amendment moon bounce.” The others slowly followed. It ended with David and his stream of urine. Admittedly, a thing like that can overwhelm the message of a big protest. So what was the message? By refusing to remove a quick-build barn in the middle of a D.C. park, what had the Occupiers proved?

“It brought a lot of attention to the movement,” said Paul, the distraught architect. “It was symbolic of what happens in a country where they’re kicking people out of homes, putting people in jail, when they should be arresting the people kicking them out.”

*Correction Dec. 6, 2011: This article originally misquoted Sam Jewler. He referred to “autonomous action,” not “anonymous action.”