They made a call for a million tents on the National Mall. In the end, 2,000 souls showed up to chant at the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court.
The plan for the four month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street was the first national direct action by the movement thus far, a protest called Occupy Congress or #J17. Activists from all over the nation were to convene on the West Lawn of the Capitol for a National General Assembly (GA), followed by some teach-ins, a visit to the Rayburn House Office Building (where congressmen work) and a march to the White House. The plan was to speak directly to their members of Congress about the issues that brought them to D.C.
Not exactly radical. And far from revolutionary.
And that's really the thing with Occupy: Yes there have been nearly 6,000 arrests in the last four months -- a much higher concentration that for other movements in recent American history, such as the anti-nuclear power protests that resulted in around 2,000 arrested over a two year period in the mid-1980s. And yes, some demonstrators wear handkerchiefs over their faces, like early celluloid bank robbers (or anarchists). And yes, they chant, "mic check" and yell, getting people like Karl Rove to say things like: "Who gave you the right to Occupy America? Nobody!" But what they want at this point seems a piece with what any number of goo-goo D.C. worthies work for each day: a more representative democratic government.
"It's not a coincidence that Congress' approval rating is near 1 percent," read OccupyDC's Twitter feed. Indeed.
The Occupy movement argues -- and has tons of evidence to back it up -- that the U.S. government is overly concerned with the needs and desires of the wealthy and corporations and has less regard for, well, the little people.
Around 2,000 Occupiers from all over the country showed up on a soggy Capitol Lawn on Tuesday morning. Depending on who you asked, this was either way bigger than they expected or utterly disappointing. At one point last year, a call went out for an ambitious encampment of 1 million tents to be staked down on the National Mall, but that plan appeared to have been largely abandoned by Tuesday. For a movement inspired by the stagnant economy, getting that many activists on buses was always going to be a challenge, for simple monetary reasons, leading to some push-back against the idea of a mass national event at all. SEIU organized an Occupy Congress type of event last month called Take Back the Capitol. That action, according to attendees, had more people, more people of color and less energy. They had buses and numbers; just not the enthusiasm. One reason is that it was, well, organized, and it's hard to accuse Occupy of being...well organized.
After an afternoon of large GAs on the lawn of the Capitol building, the Occupiers made their way to the doors of the Rayburn building. They briefly took the exterior balcony, hanging signs on a railing only to be quickly chased away by Capitol police. They chanted and cheered and hollered...then all stood in line patiently to get through building security. Once inside the building, the previously boisterous group split apart, becoming suddenly deferential inside congressional offices. Raucous on the outside; concerned average citizen on the inside. One California Occupier I followed walked into his congresswoman's office and asked quietly, "We're doing this correctly right? Asking these people to represent us?" He then went on to tell the staffers that his parents cannot retire and will have to work until they die.
I would describe most left-leaning activists as having the angst of artists, the interests of policy wonks and the emotional state of your average 7th grader. Which means all social movements at moments feel chaotic, like they're about to detonate or implode. The Internet only makes this worse. There's a near constant trickle of fear, rumor and hype among the protesters. They worry about everything and have control over none of it. For Occupy Congress, the big concern was that "autonomous anarchists" would show up and cause property damage. They'd break windows or do something that would stain the entire movement as vandals...or worse.
This did not happen last night. No windows were broken. There were six arrests. The "Black Bloc" threat didn't show up.
And Occupy Congress did manage to pull off a massive protest on the steps of the Supreme Court. This was not planned and had it been, it likely wouldn't have happened. It's illegal to demonstrate on the steps of the highest court in the nation. In October, Cornel West, on the day of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, held a sign reading, "Poverty is the worst form of violence" and was swiftly arrested in "solidarity with the Occupy Movement." Tuesday, with only a handful of Capitol Police around over a thousand Occupiers rushed the steps of the Supreme Court. There was no way for the police to arrest that many people in a massive act of civil disobedience. The protesters then stood on the steps, cheering and chanting for a few moments, before just as swiftly leaving for the White House.
Had they known what they pulled off by accident was so unusual in the post-9/11 world, they might have stayed longer on the steps of the building where Citizens United was decided, facing arrest and forcing a point about the Court. Instead, the "leaderless" movement traipsed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the current home of President Obama.
It's an apt metaphor for Occupy: Their tactical victories are, as they admit not "overly planned." They don't have paid linguists who study framing with focus groups to target key demographics. They are just convinced they're right about the extreme wealth inequality (the worst in the industrialized world) in America and don't know what else to do about it.
So, the nation's problems have them occupied at this point ... just not overly organized.
Image credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron