Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Walking Through Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square

Demonstrators marching at Freedom Plaza
The news media and blogosphere have turned their attention to Occupy Wall Street and its many offshoots in cities across America (and now Europe). Average citizens, sick of economic injustice and the intimacy between corporations and government, have come together to demand justice. Reports are emerging about police beatings and use of pepper spray on protesters, but the Occupiers remain undeterred. Naturally, I wanted to see the movement for myself.

On Saturday, October 8th, I traveled to Washington D.C. to infiltrate observe the 2011 Values Voters Summit. While in Washington, I visited Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square to take in the Occupy D.C. and October 2011 Stop the Machine camps, respectively. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, demonstrators were protesting at the National Air and Space Museum, where a guard use pepper spray on at least one person.)

As I walked toward Freedom Plaza, my stomach tightened when I saw smoke rising in the distance.

Oh God. What's happening down there? I thought.

My alarm was unwarranted, thankfully. When I arrived, I saw that the smoke was rising from grills and ovens at the Taste of D.C. festival along Pennsylvania Avenue, right next to Freedom Plaza. Whew!

Memorial to those killed in Iraq
and Afghanistan at Freedom Plaza

I arrived just in time to see a procession of several hundred marching demonstrators, toting signs and shouting "We are the 99 percent!" Many of the demonstrators looked to be in their twenties and thirties, but people of all ages were present in the procession.

Along the rim of Freedom Plaza, demonstrators left cardboard signs emblazoned with economic justice and anti-war slogans. Nearby, a makeshift memorial reminded visitors of the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rows of combat boots and a circle of shoes surrounded a sign mourning servicemember and civilian deaths.

In the heart of the plaza, occupiers set up hundreds of sleeping bags and tents for their stay. Behind them, colorful banners with progressive slogans waved in the breeze like Tibetan prayer flags. Art displays were scattered throughout the plaza, including an art instillation of an undertaker's cart, in which Mother Earth stood over the dead body of an oligarch. I passed a giant blue and green Earth, where a woman was taking a photograph of her friend. A stage with a giant Constitution in the background stood in the center of the plaza, but I'd arrived too late in the day to hear any performers or talks.

Encampment at Freedom Plaza

Progressive organizations such as The World Can't Wait manned tables and distributed literature. Food Not Bombs manned a free food table decked with fresh strawberries, crackers, and heaping plates of black beans and rice. I was struggling with guilt pangs over giving registration money to FRC Action to observe the Values Voters Summit, so I left a few dollars in the Food Not Bombs donation jar.

Several blocks away at McPherson Square, a smaller cluster of a few dozen demonstrators set up camp. Amidst sleeping bags and a food table serving sandwiches, a chalkboard listed the camp's committees and daily agenda. Cardboard signs sat in a circle around the park's statue.

The atmosphere at was energized at Freedom Plaza and peaceful at McPherson Square, and I felt far more at home there than I did at the Values Voters Summit. Still, I couldn't help but feel doubts. Large-scale demonstrations are good ways to encourage networking and revive activists' energies, but I genuinely wondered what camping out and marching would achieve. I left Washington with nagging doubts about what would ultimately result from the Occupiers' efforts.

Maybe I was too hasty.

Days later, I read about the concrete policy demands proposed by Occupy Wall Street, as well as their declaration of occupation. I read about about New York protesters marching through the Upper East Side, through neighborhoods occupied by billionaires, to pressure the state to extend a surcharge tax on the wealthy. I read about Occupy Chicago protesting at a party for the Mortgage Bankers Association. I read about protesters marching onto Capitol Hill in an attempt to shut down the U.S. Senate. I read about members of the Washington D.C. council acknowledging the right of Stop the Machine and Occupy D.C. to set up encampments and protest.

Chalkboard at McPherson Square

I want to be wrong about my doubts. I want to see the Occupy movement bring about positive changes in the country's political and corporate establishments. I want to see concrete government and corporate policy change result from these passionate efforts. The movement is widespread, and the economic frustration of its participants is genuine. If the Occupy movement can bring out lobbying efforts, voter mobilization, and policy change, its protests will not have been in vain. Only time will tell, but the movement shows no signs of slowing down.

Freak Out Nation has been meticulously documenting Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, so please check them out. For additional news and commentary, visit the following links.

BBC News: Ben & Jerry's declares a taste for Wall Street protest

Huffington Post: Occupy DC: McPherson Square Gets Tents, A Visit From The Police

Politicus USA: The Truth About The Occupy DC Pepper Spray Incident At The Air and Space Museum

Almost Diamonds: Understanding Occupy Wall Street

Infidel753: Occupation Distraction

Mature Landscaping: The Right Question for the Occupation

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