In appearance, it was like every other protest in Washington I have ever attended. And it had all the vibrancy of an assisted-living facility.
After spending significant time over the last week at the Occupy K Street camp in McPherson Square, the crowd at Freedom Plaza – where the other Occupy camp in the nation’s capital is based – was jarringly older. Geriatric, even. This is where all the old-time activists conspicuously absent from the other camp were, I thought. Now it makes sense.
“There’s no energy here,” a young guy named Alejandro wearing large pink sunglasses told me as I stood toward the back of the general assembly. “It’s like a funeral home.”
Presumably confiding in me as I was one of the few other dudes under 30 – or 50 – he explained that he used to camp at Freedom Plaza back when the occupation started in October but soon left for the greener pastures of McPherson Square.
“They wouldn’t let any of us young people have a say on things here,” he explained. “We used to have music. We used to have fun. Now it’s a just bunch of pagans and Wiccans.”
No offense to pagans and Wiccans, but I could see why he left. In contrast to the larger Occupy DC camp on K Street, the camp at Freedom Plaza had no drum circles, no hula hoopers and, most noticeably, no life, the general assembly I witnessed having all the energy of a bible study in the basement of a Presbyterian church.
However, what they lacked in youth and energy was made up for sevenfold in condescension and sectarianism. At McPherson Square, I never heard a bad word about their fellow occupiers at Freedom Plaza, their free newspaper, The Occupied Washington Times,even going so far as to explicitly call them allies. At Freedom Plaza, by contrast, I heard people seemingly gleeful about the fact that “Code Pink people” are no longer there. Yay! We’re alienating our few allies!
At the general assembly, meanwhile, I a number of speakers took pains to bad mouth their much counterparts at McPherson, seemingly still bitter over having their occupation – which was planned months ago under the title “Stop the Machine” to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan – shown up by a bunch of upstart youngsters.
And boy were they patronizing. One woman, for instance, spoke of having to step between the cops and the ragtag “kids” at McPherson when the latter got a little too hot under the collar at a recent protest outside the Washington Convention Center. These kids were confrontational, she said, and didn’t appreciate the moral and pragmatic virtues of peaceful protest. A gray-haired likewise said the folks at the McPherson occupation professeda commitment to non-violence, but that the commitment to the ways of Gandhi and MLK was deeperat Freedom Plaza.
Cool, activist infighting! Zzzzzzz. *Drools on shirt, begins snoring* Huh, what?
To be fair, not every person who spoke was so condescending. Indeed, one older woman got up and explicitly denounced the more-non-violent-than-thou condescenders, saying she didn’t like the suggestion that the McPherson kids were any less committed to non-violence. And the criticisms that were aired came in the context of a discussion about creating a joint legal defense fund for the two occupations, so there are attempts to better coordinate between the two groups, which is encouraging.
Before arriving in DC, I thought I would have greater affinity for the Freedom Plaza occupation, despite its more traditional reliance on a core of more or less professional activists; it was, after all, planned with an explicit focus on opposition to war and empire, which is kind of my thing. Accordingly, when I first arrived in the city I stopped by the plaza for a couple hours to freeze my ass off and hold a sign declaring “War = Crime / Obama = Criminal.”
“What does that sign say, mommy?” a young girl asked as she walked by. “Don’t read it!” the mother snapped back – for my benefit, obviously.
At the same time, I was intrigued by the consensus model used at McPherson Square, which seemed a bit closer to my own decentralist prejudices. Having now spent time at both occupations, I think I can fairly say that, while the models used by both camps can be complementary and each has their own set of advantages and disadvantages, one of them has proven decidedly more inclusive and conducive to growing a movement than the other.
It’s not the one being used by all the old people.