Trip report from Washington, MacPherson Square, Occupy Congress, and Freedom Plaza
NOTE: Readers, there are a number of photographs on the full post, and I hope the page isn't too slow to load. And I'm sorry this post took so long for me to write, but as it turned out I had a lot to think about.
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Thanks to Correntians helping out, and thanks especially to Coyote Creek, who let me crash in her hotel room, I was able to visit DC for Occupy Congress. Like any tourist, I've got pictures, not the best, but at least authentic! I'm going to put the pictures up more or less in their order of taking, give impressions, with an occasional nugget of analysis, as I go along. Take what you like and leave the rest....
However, before I walk through my time in DC, here's why DC has always felt creepy to me. And it's a fine illustration of "what's normal is the problem" however you define normal. Along the National Mall:
Yes, friends, in DC Politico is a freebie. A shopper. And you can guess what's being shopped.
So, I got into DC late on Monday -- and thanks again to Correntians, I could take Amtrak*, which has WiFi (of a sort), rather than cobble together several Chinese buses -- and met the violet-eyed Coyote Creek at the hotel. She was full of energy and suggested we walk over to MacPherson Park. (Amazingly, the OccupyDC encampments there and in Freedom Plaza were within walking distance of both the hotel, Congress, and the White House.) And so we did; it was rainy and chill (at least for DC):
What struck me from the sidewalk level was the density and (relative) orderliness of the encampment. The camp was really the size of a small village; it could have held several hundred people, at least. Even well after dark we could hear conversations inside the tents, and it was strange to think of others, asleep, in the darkness behind the tent walls, as we the tourists took our happy snaps:
There were many signs of self-organization. The OccuTea tent:
But more interesting to me were the clear signs of traffic from other Occupations through MacPherson Park. Occupy San Diego:
The MacPherson Square guest book, showing visits from many Occupations:
(Riverdaughter might call this peer-to-peer communication between relatively autonomous, self-directed groupuscules a form of quorum sensing.) We also spoke with an oldster I'll call Paul, who rode his bike from Occupation to Occupation -- biking will become a very useful skill when our overlords finally get a system of internal passport controls up and running -- and there are other Occupiers I spoke with who do the same thing. So, although we may think of the Occupations as isolated, because oddly, or not, our famously free press doesn't cover them as an organic process (as opposed to covering the occasional "if it bleeds it leads" spectacle) they are very much not so.
Finally, for me this sign was the most important sighting at MacPherson Square:
From the Barcalounger: I do not believe that formulating "our one demand" is useful or interesting tactically or strategically; we might regard demands as the late flowering from a rhizomic mat whose roots are hardly yet sunk in the ground. What I do believe is that AA -- Bill W. and Dr. Bob are the founders of AA -- provides a useful organizational model for Occupy. Like Occupy, AA's "meetings" are local and autonomous. Unlike Occupy, most meetings accept a common set of norms for group process (the "12 traditions") to which members can refer and appeal to avoid group dysfunction. From the grapevine, issues that manifest themselves through group process are a concern for many Occupations, and no wonder: Bootstrapping a consensus-based decision making process in an authoritarian political economy isn't easy, everybody has real life issues, and marginalized people tend to be fractious in any case. Fortunately for AA, there is a Central Office, which in no sense governs the meetings, but serves them by distributing "literature," including the 12 Traditions. Perhaps the Occupation movement worldwide could use a central office like that. Speculating freely, I'd guess there's some overlap between the old-timers on bikes and A.A. ....
So, Coyote Creek and I went back to the hotel, the red-haired RiverDaughter came in the next morning, and off we went to Occupy Congress! We got off the Metro at Smithsonian, not Capitol South, but that was good, because we got to see that the National Mall is big; it's continental in scale, not European.
From the Barcalounger: I'm emphasizing the scale of the Mall because Avedon asked the excellent question on Virtually Speaking: "Did they even notice?" I answered that they had to have; Occupation was right on their front lawn under their windows, unlike Resurrection City, MLK's proto-Occupy encampment in the 60s, which at least from the photographs I could find was way down the Mall, far away from the Capitol.
The Capitol does, however, have a Versailles-like balcony. No snipers that I could see!
Yes, San Diego made it, despite their travails with Greyhound. Nice swag:
There was political theatre, except out on the lawn. Look! It's Senator Carl Levin, hoist by his own Enabling Act!
On the space and the crowd: Riverdaughter's take is here; here's mine. I'd estimate the crowd on the lawn when we arrived (a little after 9:00AM) as around five hundred. Those are small numbers in absolute terms, but they become much more significant when you realize that Occupy Congress was the first national gathering of Occupy GAs, most of whom funded themselves (or were funded by their commmunities, as I was), and not funded by legacy party operatives or enablers. So it took quite a commitment to travel across country to attend, even for those of us who didn't ride bikes.
For a n00b like me, the main takeaway was lessons from experts in How to Occupy. One young woman circulated through the crowd with a magic marker, writing a phone number on our wrists: The lawyer to call if we got arrested. "Don't talk to the police. It can't do you any good." (Actually, we talked to the police all the time, to ask them for directions. Carrying our signage.) A second young woman, demonstrating leaderfulness, mike checked for volunteers, and I was able to help out by carrying a case of water bottles from the bottom of the hill to the refreshments table at the top of the hill. Later, when it began to rain, a young man circulated through the crowd handing out ponchos. And so on. These actions are all examples of the sort of neighborly and, dare I say it, unmediated helping out that David Graeber calls "the communism of everyday life." These actions are also examples of very savvy tasking techniques for shaping a crowd into a group (if I have the sociological concepts right here. So much healthier than turning a crowd into a mob). And RiverDaughter and Coyote Creek actually got themselves interviewed by Agence France Press! Like my namesake, I faded into the background, but only after introducing the AFP reporter to San Diego Occupy. They were not quoted, alas, which shows the utility of being able to pass.** However, when the history books are written, networking may turn out to be the most significant aspect of the event: I was introduced by Occupy San Diego to a Maine Occupy I didn't even know existed: Occupy MDI. I'm sure the same type of interaction occurred all the time.
And now the main event (at least for me) -- The General Assembly:***
The GA began around noon; we estimated that the crowd had grown to around 700. Suddenly, and seemingly spontaneously, a large circle began to form, and we joined it. At one point, there was a request that we lock arms, so we did, but then there seemed to be no reason for it, so we stopped. The inside of the circle was rather a scrum: As the picture shows, there were many media types with cameras, including network-style shoulder cameras, ordinary people, people in costume, people with manifestos in hand, et cetera, besides the "facilitators," who gradually mike checked the random out of the inner circle, drew the outer circle closer, introduced themselves, trained the crowd in the People's Mic and Occupy hand signals, and then began the agenda. This process took, I would say, about forty minutes.
From the Barcalounger: When you think about it, bootstrapping the GA is an amazing achievement. Have you ever tried to get a bunch of professionals to agree on where to go to lunch and when to get back? Ugly, isn't it? How about getting your church property committee to agree on repainting the vestry? Well, consider that the Occupiers not only had to bootstrap the agenda, they had to bootstrap the procedures for the meeting itself. Back in the Gilded Age, when America was still expanding, there was a great need for associations of all kinds all over the country, but nobody knew how to run a meeting. Hence Roberts' Rules of Order. But there was no copy of Robert's Rules at the GA!**** Because, they're inventing new rules, although perhaps "conventions" would be a better work than "rules." "Mike check," new in this country, is an example of such an invention.
Still from the Barcalounger: Riverdaughter also commented, from her experiences at Zucotti Park, that the facilitators at Occupy Congress had a harder task than Occupy Wall Street, because the lawn in front of the Capitol is much more open than Zucotti Park is. This is bad for acoustics, so we had to learn a double People's Mic so that the faciliators' words would carry, which I wasn't very good at, and I wasn't the only one. (Note to facilitators: Sentences that break down into short, simple phrases transmit best over the People's Mic! Also, some voice training, especially in projection, would not go amiss.) Open space is also vulnerable to interruption, well-meant or not: While the facilitators were going through the agenda, the GA was mike checked to draw attention to an arrest then taking place. "You should not be here. You should be...." where the arrest was. About half the crowd left. If I had been at a party caucus meeting, say, or a church committee, the timing would have given me pause. Just saying. As it was, the lawn allowed the crowd to split in the way that a smaller, enclosed space would not have.
Since we need to meet with DCBlogger late in the afternoon, we went to lunch first, some of us, including me, no longer being as young as we once were. Coyote Creek asked for directions from a policeman, and we walked a few blocks to a MacDonalds. We noticed something interesting about the DC Police: They seemed to deploy themselves in a more intelligent way than the NPYD. As I recall, Bloomberg, at least when he wanted to clear the park, would bus in a great mass of policeman (rather like Mubarak bussed the baltigaya into Tahrir Square) who would then surround the park and start wailing away. Stressful, violence-inviting, photogenic, and brittle, because what happens if the Occupiers break the police lines? There's no reserve force. [Readers, correct me on this tactical point.] However, as we walked, we saw that the DC Police had arranged themselves in concentric circles around the Capitol, which would allow them to (a) increase pressure gradually on Occupy Congress by sending in reserves and (b) maneuver to prevent other Occupations from joining Occupy Congress. It seemed like a "bend, but never break" model. (As DCBlogger explained later, "Not in front of visitors!" is the prevailing rule for LE in DC. Good to know.) For what it's worth! At least at the tactical level, New York is not Oakland is not LA is not DC.....
After (Mmm! Fat! Salt!) our burgers, RiverDaughter, Coyote Creek, and I went over to the National Portrait Gallery, where we had a wonderful long conversation and an incident. We hope to have video of the incident, but for now suffice to say that the incident involved this sign:
It was dusk when we left, and we walked back to the Capitol lawn, where the crowd had swelled to around two thousand, there was food, and music. Very peaceful and mildly festive, and notable only because DCBlogger and I lost contact with Riverdaughter and Coyote Creek in the dark. So I called Coyote Creek on the cellphone she lent me. "We're over there under the upside-down flag. RiverDaughter's holding up her iPad. Can you see it!" Like, first world! Totally! Then we walked back to the hotel, because I had to make sure the phone card worked for calling in to Virtually Speaking. We walked through Freedom Plaza, and where MacPherson park seems all about earth and trees, Freedom Plaza seems all about stone and right angles:
They also have better infrastructure. Here's the kitchen:
And here's the media center:
But still. Rectilinear. Very rectilinear:
And so we walked back past the White House to the hotel in the warm evening, where we called into Virtually Speaking (and I think I filibustered, because I was thinking a lot of this through on the fly, but Avedon was very patient.)
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Now, I didn't see a guestbook at Freedom Plaza, though there may have been. And I'm told that MacPherson Park puts on more actions. And I understand that Freedom Plaza is permitted, and MacPherson Park is not, which leads to doctrinal differences Still, the two Occupations had better learn to hang together, and for two reasons:
1. Freedom Plaza is strategically located on the route for the Inaugural. Somehow, I don't think The Droner would want to oass by an Occupation, and will try to make sure that Freedom Plaza is cleansed of citizens seeking redress of grievances well before the photo ops. So there's a built-in and very powerful narrative there that all Occupiers would do well to think about.
2. Washington, DC, in a throwback to plantation days, is disenfranchised and run by Congress.***** When I read the Pravda's coverage of Occupy Congress's first day on Wednesday morning -- in the Metro Section, ouch! -- the future narrative was buried fourteen paragraphs deep:
The future of the encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plasza is not clear. The office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Tuesday that the House Oversight panel on the District will hold a hearing on the McPherson Square camp next Tuesday, with the police chief, city health director and National Park Service officials expected to testify.
Yes, yes, the health trope. It's always an effective tactic to associate "the other" with vermin; it worked quite well for Dr. Joseph Goebbels, which is no doubt why our famously free press has adopted it. (OWS preempted this talking point quite effectively.)
We had a talk with "Paul" at MacPherson park about "rats" -- quelle horreur -- which is likely to be one of Issa's "Exterminate the Occupiers!" talking points. Paul's tip: If you don't want rats in your tent, don't eat food there. Paul's larger point: It's not like there are no rats in the city. They were here before the Occupations, and they'll be here after the Occupations. And his even larger point: Since when did Congress ever care about rats? If they did, the poor neighborhoods in DC wouldn't be full of 'em. So Issa just wants an excuse. Good luck with that. Anyhow, in DC the real rats wear suits.
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So that's my trip report on Occupy. It's late and a bit scattered, for which I apologize, but the experience was so rich it was hard for me to think through. Clearly, Occupy is the most interesting form of "politicking" going on today, far more interesting than the primariez, or whatever commission-driven online petition the career "progressives" are pimping this week. And the approaching spring will only add energy, figuratively and literally, to the Occupations. They're not going away. The demands will come.
NOTE * Experienced traveler-like and definitely "first world problem"-type remark: The seats on the old Northeast Regional cars are far more roomy and comfortable than seats on the Acela, which through some miracle of misread barcode ticketing I took on the way down. If I want to sit in airplane seats, I'll take an airplane. It's also clear, from the ride, why High Speed Rail needs a dedicated roadbed. Infrastructure....
NOTE ** I'll be able to pass until my teeth go.
Unlikely to be able to pass (and that's not a bad thing necessarily).
NOTE *** Unlike visiting Congressional offices, or getting arrested for that matter, the GA is genuinely novel, at least in this place and time. Or not novel at all. DeTocqueville on "Connection of Civil and Political Associations" (PDF):
Political associations may therefore be considered as large free schools, where all the members of the community go to learn the general theory of association.
Although reading the context in Democracy in America, I'd love to see a David Graeber / Alexis De Tocqueville Celebrity Steel Cage Death Match in nature vs. nurture, the nature and role of the State, and hindsight (I don't see DeTocqueville foreshadow the civil war in his 1831 book, even though 1831 was the same year as the Nat Turner Rebellion, and Britain abolished slavery in 1833, after a campaign lasting many years). Perhaps I'm wrong on that. Readers?
NOTE **** To be clear, I'm pointing to the societal function served by procedures like Roberts Rules, not advocating Roberts Rules as such. From the 1915 edition:
he object of Rules of Order in deliberative assemblies, is to assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed, in the best possible manner. To do this, it is necessary to somewhat restrain the individual, as the right of an individual in any community to do what he pleases, is incompatible with the best interests of the whole. Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty. Experience has shown the importance of definiteness in the law; and in this country, where customs are so slightly established and the published manuals of parliamentary practice so conflicting, no society should attempt to conduct business without having adopted some work upon the subject, as the authority in all cases not covered by their own rules.
It has been well said by one of the greatest of English writers on parliamentary law: "Whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is, that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body."
I doubt there are many Occupations that could reach consensus with this philosophy.
NOTE **** The Greens are the second largest party in DC. Perhaps they can address this in a way that the legacy party establishment cannot.
UPDATE I deleted the reference to Dr. Margaret Flowers. Principles, not personalities!