There’s a very traditional way of protesting in Washington: People come with their signs, parade up and down the Mall or Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and then move on, like a cloud of locusts passing over a field. The only way of measuring impact is through crowd counts. Usually, lawmakers aren’t even around to see those numbers.
This month, protesting has evolved. Two groups of demonstrators on McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, which arose separately and remain independent from each other, have made camp for the foreseeable future on their respective plots of federal land. Since establishing themselves in early October, both have grown exponentially, with tents filling in the rectangles and infrastructure becoming more solid and complex. Residents wave off questions about their departure date. Why even acknowledge the end of an occupation before it happens?
The explicitly political content of the occupation shows up on signs and during daily forays into surrounding areas for protests. But the occupiers don’t actually spend much time talking about what they want from government. Having specific demands would just legitimize the system, some say—not to mention alienate participants who might not agree with them, and set the standards by which they might succeed or fail.
What they do spend time talking about is how to keep everyone housed, fed, safe, healthy, and entertained. With this protest, logistics are political too: By creating a self-contained, self-governing, radically transparent and egalitarian community, they’ll model how the rest of society ought to work.
The Occupy movement is all over the United States by now. In Washington, though, it carries a special significance. Controlled by the National Park Service, the District’s downtown parks have always functioned either as manicured show spaces or staging grounds for transitory protests. But they never felt lived in—think of Franklin Square, which is still like a black hole in the middle of the central business district—until the occupiers broke the rules. And that’s a revolution D.C. residents should get behind.
Not all occupations are created equal, of course. The District’s two encampments are subtly different beasts, in large part due to the nature of the space they inhabit.
Consider McPherson Square. Its layout mimics the form of a city: There’s more earth than concrete, which allows a separation between the “residential” areas and paved spaces for transit and discussion. The mature trees serve as landmarks—“Meet by that oak,” you might say—and as shelter from both the sun and the rain. It’s surrounded by restaurants, residences, hotels, and offices that are all open to the street, creating a natural circulation of people who stop and stay a while on their way to lunch or appointments or the Metro.
That layout has helped the square develop its own internal geography. The west side is the most cosmopolitan, with communal tents for food, supplies, information, and medical help lining both sides of a wide pathway that serves as a main avenue. Other tents house media, technology, and finance along a side street. These thoroughfares are the most congested, as passersby stroll through, browse at the lending library, sit on a bench, or stop to chat at the information station without getting in anyone’s way. There are a few clever plays on the building blocks of urban life: A plastic bin with dry socks functions as a “sock exchange” and a water fountain has been converted into an “aqueduct” for filling gallon jugs using split bamboo poles, duct tape, and string.
Most of the encampment’s public business takes place on the park’s southwest lawn, which is clear of tents, creating plenty of room for the 50-odd people who crowd in a tight circle for each evening’s General Assembly. Until recently, when they started building a wooden-framed base of operations near the center of the park, the “de-escalation team”—charged with defusing any conflicts and policing the park for drugs and alcohol—had been posted on the park’s northern boundary, where they could intercept nighttime partiers coming off K Street NW.
The park’s makeshift housing is organized as well. A plan for marking tents with street addresses is in the works, and one concrete path has already been named “Gandhi Avenue.” The original inhabitants lived in the northwest corner, but rain took its toll on the grass. They moved to the park’s central panel and tried to re-seed the mud. The fringes of the park are more suburban, where people have moved to get away from noise and activity in the middle of the park at night. The southeastern corner is a planned community, having been outfitted with large Coleman tents for visitors and the homeless.
The most bohemian district is right next to the statue of McPherson, marked by a drum circle that’s continuously populated with dancers, smokers, and musicians.
“This is my neighborhood,” explains Christina McKenna, a young woman with big brown eyes and a gentle manner. Tents are arranged around a central circle where her two small children can feel at home; one is running around in a dinosaur suit. They’ve arranged a small kitchen area where they cook their own meals, since the food tent was getting “too authoritarian.” (Sometimes, the neighborhood concept goes too far—at Freedom Plaza, the general assembly had to evict a woman who had tried to enforce a woman-only district within the tent city.)
McKenna is one of the leaders of the Sleepers Committee, which is charged with preparing those who’ve really made the square their home—and don’t have a roof to return to when it rains—for the long winter. That may come with breaking even more rules, like making campfires to stay warm, or laying down flagstones to create paths through the muck.
The most impressive structure in the encampment so far belongs to Sandra Alcoorn, a weatherbeaten old woman with no apparent teeth who had been staying in an alley before joining the new village. She was given a small tent, and covered it with tarps that are tied down with strips of an old sheet that have been wrapped with duct tape and staked out with the ribs of a broken umbrella. Inside, Alcoorn has bedded down with sleeping bags and a thick furniture storage blanket for insulation. She’s even got several wooden palettes to create flooring for when it rains again.
“I’m the kind of person, I like to settle,” she says. “I like to put my roots down.”
At McPherson Square, she’s got everything she needs.
Freedom Plaza, despite nearly indistinguishable ideology and infrastructure, is a dramatically different environment.
The location was picked, months in advance, to draw a parallel with Cairo’s Tahrir Square, center of the demonstrations that brought down Hosni Mubarak. “It was symbolic,” says Udi Pladott, one of the original organizers, nodding to the Capitol dome in the distance. “I don’t think for tenting you would choose marble and concrete.”
He’s right about that. Freedom Plaza, built in 1980 to mimic the original plan of Washington, is totally inhospitable. There’s no place to sit, with only the barest excuse for a bench around the edges. Grassy spaces are microscopic, forcing tents to bleed out onto the concrete. Communal services, like food, medical supplies, and media, are clustered in a corner; the central walkway between them is narrow and divided by a staircase, which makes it difficult to navigate. There’s a somewhat awkward segregation between the occupiers and the homeless, who cluster in a walled-off circle of benches on the northeast corner, rather than integrating with the crowds the way they do on McPherson Square.
Worse, there’s nothing of value around the plaza: There’s the fortified wall of the Reagan Building, the usually dark National Theatre, a blank office building, and the monumental staircase of the Wilson Building, D.C.’s city hall. The tourist-heavy crowds have no reason to amble through Freedom Plaza unless they’re curious about something inside it, which leaves the campers isolated on their elevated plinth—not a great strategy for engaging the public.
Perhaps that’s why the Freedom Plaza encampment doesn’t have the same energy of its sister protest in McPherson Square. Besides the fact that it came pre-organized—meaning organizers lost out on the community-building function of creating infrastructure from scratch—it’s in a place with no internal magnetism. Pladott says he thought people would come intentionally, drawn by the news of the protest gathered elsewhere. But it hasn’t gained steam like he’d hoped. “There’s less support than we would have wanted,” he admits.
Of course, Freedom Plaza was designed with a specific purpose: To be a launchpad for marches and a venue for shouting at the federal government. But if the more powerful message of the Occupy movement is the act of building a new kind of society, it makes more sense to be near the beating heart of Washington. And at the same time, the occupiers are showing Washington what its parks could be even after they leave—the city’s living room, not its parlor.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery. Map of the encampment here.
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