A Passionate Photo Narrative Inspired by My Time with #OccupyDC
I’m rarely at a loss for words. However, as I sit before the screen, attempting to distill the intensity of my experience at #OccupyDC, a single thought keeps repeating: I’m going to fail.
See, as I walked briskly down K Street, making my way toward McPherson Square, I did not understand how the collection of tents that winked in the distance would change me. I was not prepared, a stone’s throw from the White House, for how the people with whom I would speak and the scenes I was about to witness would so transform me.
I did not understand.
Which is precisely why I don’t understand exactly how to do this, how to give you a window into the profound impact McPherson Square has made upon me as a writer, as a political activist, as an American.
I’m going to fail – I accept this. And yet I will attempt to express what Occupy DC is and what it may become. I’ll start by showing you this:
This is one of the first images I witnessed: a young man in fatigues sleeping beneath the statue of McPherson, a Union general no longer surveying a Civil War battlefield, but instead looking out upon a group of activists gathered on the grass discussing issues of racism in America.
And I thought, as McPherson gazed upon the crowd, that he would be pleased. That he would approve. That he would see everyone gathered on the grass, feel the man sleeping at his feet, look upon the tents and think, Yes, this is the country for which I fought.
McPherson Square, like many occupations that have sprung up around the country, has turned into a makeshift village. There’s a library, a staffed kitchen, an information center, neighborhoods full of temporary, canvas houses and a medical tent.
It was the latter that I found in the shadow of General McPherson:
The medical tent is staffed by nurses from National Nurses United, a union that has thrown its weight behind the Occupy Wall Street movement. The two nurses I met, Amber Jamil and Huong Le, were there helping individuals on their own time as volunteers, just as all the nurses who help with the medical tent so do.
These are professionals who believe that there is a lack of economic justice in America which translates into a lack of affordable health care for the populations they serve in a professional capacity.
Technically, they offer basic first aid to those in the park. But their presence means more than bandages and pain killers. Their presence is a testament to the broader coalitions of Americans who are lining up in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I turned from the medical tent and watched Stan Marsh prepare and distribute food to individuals lined up at the “People’s Kitchen.”
He served freshly baked pumpkin bread prepared by a local resident, rice balled into aluminum foil packages donated by a local Japanese restaurant and an assortment of fresh produce. And he served these items to anyone who lined up, including occupants of the camp and the homeless who were filtering through the park, seeking sustenance.
No questions asked. People were just being fed.
Marsh told me that they had donations streaming in by the hour –from canned goods and spices to offerings from local eateries. He said nobody would go hungry.
Near the kitchen I found the “People’s Library,” a canvas-covered space with bookshelves filled and voices reverberating:
Not far away, tucked beside some tents near K Street, I found a group of four gathered on the grass. As chance would have it, they were the Library Working Group.
As I sat on the grass next to them, Ed, Jon, Lisa and Hillary were eager to speak about their involvement in the Occupy DC movement, and did so candidly.
They spoke of the transformational character of the movement – of how inspirational it was to be a part of this direct democracy effort, of how this participation was having a ripple effect as it touched more people, and how the corruption they were united in fighting had created the type of activism that some baby boomers have been dreaming about for decades.
What struck me about these individuals was this: none of them were permanent occupiers. They were mostly professionals donating their time after work and on the weekends. And I thought: it’s precisely this type of involvement – busy professionals with jobs and kids and outside responsibilities – which has transformed Occupy Wall Street into a popular, undeniably cross-sectional movement.
A friend of mine, Noah Smock, decided that – after listening to them speak – the library would be a good place to share a short story he’d written as a small offering:
I found Ryan Gomez in front of the information tent, a smile perpetually etched across his face as he answered an array of questions from curious tourists, occupiers and residents strolling through the park.
I was most impressed by the numbers of people crowding around Gomez, asking questions about the movement.
They asked about the protesters’ demands and message. They asked about policy positions. They asked whether the occupiers can make it through the winter.
They asked, and as they did, I knew one thing: this collective curiosity in America is only strengthening because it’s not solely a voyeuristic curiosity.
No, it is a curiosity driven by a longing for things in our country to change. It is a curiosity generated by those standing on the outside of Occupy Wall Street who are looking in and wondering, Can these people really change our country?
I’ve marched with and sat among occupiers in Pittsburgh. I’ve covered and witnessed occupations around the country from afar. So I should not have been surprised by what I saw.
However, my time at Occupy DC has changed me profoundly.
Perhaps it was because the halls of power stood within such close proximity. Perhaps it was because of the grit and intelligence of those I encountered in the park as the chilled air reminded us that winter was approaching and their words reminded me that they could care less. Perhaps it was because of the images that I found everywhere which told me that a once-a-generation movement was afoot.
Perhaps it was the realization, leaving McPherson Square, that what I saw was not just a place, but a poignant representation – in our nation’s capital – of a movement that has spread across our country. A movement that is capturing the imagination of more and more Americans who feel that their representative government has wholly failed them.
A movement that is not going to end anytime soon.
Author’s Note: I am often asked about messaging. Questions such as, What is the message of this movement? What do they want? What’s the point of protesting if there are no specific demands?
I’m often perplexed by such questions, particularly when the “message” to me could not be clearer. That said, here is how I often respond to such questions (knowing that others have very different ways of answering):
First, here is the message: we live in a country in which corporate CEOs make, on average, 200 times more money than the average American salary. And those CEOs, who comprise our nation’s richest 1 percent, use their influence to buy off our politicians and purchase legislation that ensures such ridiculous gaps of wealth will be maintained. So the message is this: the 99 percent of us who remain will no longer stand for this corruption that benefits the wealthiest 1 percent.
Second, messaging aside, the point is to protest. Plain and simple. In an organic, democratic and leaderless movement, it’s a bit strange to expect immediate and cogent policy positions to emerge (even though many have). I elect leaders who are supposed to be wise enough to understand how to craft legislation that will fairly represent the needs of all Americans, not just those who fund their campaigns. And so the point is to protest, broadly, to let them know they had better do better or risk being replaced at the ballot box.
Editor’s Note: This story originally published Sunday, October 23, 2011 at DailyKos.com