Occupy DC On Its Feet, But Yet to Get Oriented

Last Thursday several hundred people stood around Freedom Plaza as a part of the Occupy DC movement, one of the offshoots of the larger Occupy Wall Street movement that have sprung up nationwide. The organizers, many of whom were apparently from labor unions and the anti-Walker protests in Wisconsin, had a strong logistical backbone, with a stage, good microphones and speakers, portable toilets, first aid, a livestream setup, and tents for legal issues and the media. However, as other journalists have noted, there are no clear leaders and no centralized organization either in DC or in New York. Rather it seems to be an improvised bunch of activist groups (like Adbusters), hackers, and labor unions, who decide by consensus. Though there was a lot of heated rhetoric, the classic liberal empathic vibe manifested itself to an almost absurd degree. The de facto MC was yelling at one point “Wall Street: go fuck yourself!” and then, minutes later, “Is someone missing their bifocals?”

Protestors who were there of their own accord, unaffiliated with any organization, gave reasons centering around Wall Street as their reasons for attending. Several mentioned Inside Job and the unfairness of the capital gains tax rate as their reasons for coming out. After the banks nearly destroyed the world economy, only to be rescued with $700 billion and more from taxpayers, three years later almost nothing has been done to help underwater homeowners and unemployment is still grinding along past 9 percent. Banks are even more consolidated than before the crisis; the top 10 banks account for 77 percent of domestic assets, compared to 55 percent in 2002. For the five largest banks, 2009 and 2010 were their most profitable years ever, and compensation hit record levels in 2010. Financial regulation left derivatives alone, and the consumer protection agency (the CPFB) is being hamstrung by congressional Republicans, who refuse to allow a vote on any director. This is the situation that brought people out.

But the groups participating were a bit of a hodgepodge. There was everything from some kind of Code Pink Ron Paul affiliate arguing the Federal Reserve should be abolished, to antiwar veterans from several conflicts, to LaRoucheite kooks, to even a few College Republican counter-protestors. While there was no focused, coherent message, there were three strong sentiments running throughout: anti-corporation (especially banks), antiwar, and concern about student loan debt. The Troy Davis execution was also mentioned multiple times.

When the actually rally started, it was mostly disconnected from specific Wall Street issues. The performers’ message often ranged from the gauzy, like one Ashley Sanders who said, “Capitalism is fake,” to the gruesome, like Ron Kipling Williams (he performed this piece, for example). Rapper Head Roc performed songs advocating changing the name of the Redskins and for DC statehood. Wisconsin grandmas sang about taxing the rich and ending our various wars. All worthy causes to be sure, but the reaction to these performers seemed muted. (One notable exception was an Egyptian gentleman who had participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations. He spoke briefly in support of the movement, and received a rapturous response.)

The Occupy Everything movement has often been compared to the Tea Party, for obvious reasons. Probably the biggest reasons the latter was so successful were the conservative organizations that provided the movement with a ready-made list of policy proposals and the right-wing media megaphone that picked up that message and blasted it from the rooftops. The left doesn’t have that same degree of iron message discipline, but there is now a strong network of liberal think-tanks and policy wonks who could easily fill in some policy proposals. What’s more, the media coverage of the protests was intense, and could provide some of the function the Drudge-Limbaugh-Fox axis did for the Tea Party..

In any case, this is only the beginning. One suspects that throughout the country, organizers like the ones in New York and DC have been caught flat-footed by the depth of the anger they’ve tapped. It’s one thing to talk about how “We are the 99 percent” and another to be swamped with real protesters and have to craft a strategy on the fly. If they can get a focused agenda, and ditch some of the people who are too radical (or incoherent) for any Democratic politician, they could gain serious leverage. Especially because they happen to be right.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.