I was dropped off at the corner of K and 16th Street, the northern edge of McPherson Square where Occupy DC has been holding its ground for more than a month. A cardboard sign with the handwritten words, “Welcome to Our Revolution of Ethics + Values,” was the first thing I saw as I walked up to the wide path through the public park with my reporter’s notebook and camera.
I wasn’t there representing any news organization, but I wanted to see Occupy DC for myself and talk to the women and men who are deliberately creating a more just and equitable world in a very public and collaborative way and in opposition to corporate and political greed. I was also tired of seeing corporate media reports that disparaged the Occupy movement as a bunch of whiny college grads who don’t want to find a job. As a sympathetic, under-employed 20-something with a Master’s degree, I wanted to be in the action, if only for a few hours.
McPherson Square was equal parts surreal, energizing and inspiring although its ranks were significantly smaller on a dreary, chilly Thursday afternoon in late October. The square is carved up into spaces for tents, a public kitchen, free clothing, medical tent, library and general assembly. All day long, men and women in suits on their way to work, tourists, the homeless, Occupiers, international and national news media cross paths in McPherson Square. I had come from a meeting at Georgetown University, where its well-heeled student body and faculty were gearing up for the university’s Alumni Weekend. Famous, prestigious alums (including former world leaders) were expected to come back to their alma mater and line the school’s coffers with millions of dollars that still don’t push down the $50,000+ price tag of a Georgetown education. The distance between Georgetown University and McPherson square is enormous.
I first met James Makowski, a chef who moved to DC from Chicago, in the finance committee tent, where he deals with donations and other committees’ money requests for food, supplies and other needs. There are no individual requests for money, Makowski said, and each committee collectively decides what it needs. Makowski joined Occupy DC in early October after dropping in on a finance committee meeting and decided to stay. “At the time being, I live here,” he said. “You spend time here and you get sucked in for 10 hours.”
The weather reports predicting a rare October snowstorm over Halloween weekend didn’t deter him. Preparing for seasonal weather changes, making sure everyone’s tent was well equipped for the cold and staying in McPherson were the tasks that concerned Makowski. The visibility and accessibility of McPherson Square is crucial to the movement, he said. “The issues we face are much larger than the food we eat, the weather we face,” he added.
Makowski’s belief that occupying the physical space of McPherson Square no matter what is the strength and key to the Occupy movements around the country. Young Americans are not only actively organizing en masse around issues of economic justice, and corporate greed that speak to macro-level structures of global capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies – they’re physically taking over public spaces from New York to Boston, Baltimore and beyond. Of course, there are criticisms that the Occupy movement isn’t cohesive and has no policy goals and directives. My answer to that is why should they? The visibility and the impact of physically occupying space when you want change – whether it’s the 1960s Jim Crow South, anti-war demonstrations or today’s Occupy movements – should not be overlooked and dismissed as ineffective. After all, change comes through a multitude of tactics. Seeing Occupy DC in the square and walking through it as it is happening organically can change a person’s thinking and possibly spur them to action. Change is not only thinking about what you want to happen, it’s acting in ways that create broader momentum and support.
Momentum and the possibility of a grassroots coalition with Occupy DC on issues of financial reform is what brought Rajini Raj, a nurse at Washington Hospital Center, to volunteer at the medical tent. Raj’s nurses union, National Nurses United, donated a medical tent and supplies to Occupy DC in addition to Occupy movements in New York, L.A. and Chicago. Before there was Occupy Wall Street, Raj said National Nurses United rallied on Wall Street in June in support for reinstating the Financial Transaction Tax, which was instated after the Great Depression and later abandoned.
Raj said she sees the need for economic change in her patients who suffer from more depression and health problems. “They’ve been choosing between paying their medicines and their mortgage,” she said.
We have yet to measure the impact of the Occupy movements but one thing is for sure – it’s building support within the 99% and spreading to smaller cities. While walking last weekend through downtown Frederick, Maryland, someone handed me a flyer with the question, “Occupy Frederick?” This local Occupy movement is still in its infancy and its organizers plans to hold a general assembly at 5p.m., tomorrow, at All Saints Episcopal Church to discuss its future. Who knows – the next time I drop in on an Occupy movement, it may be in the city where I’ve lived near for the past 6 years. I can only hope.