Sleeping bags, pillows, blankets and backpacks line a grassy strip along one side of Freedom Plaza, and already there are a couple tents set up—this is the beginning of encampment at the“Stop the Machine, Create a Better World” rally in Washington, DC.
Though the event is not distinctly part of the #Occupy movements spurned by the massive Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, the anti-war movement became swept up in its imagery as the original DC occupiers from McPherson Square joined in on the gathering at Freedom Plaza.
But as the blended occupation got underway, it was already looking different from its counterpart on Wall Street, namely by kicking off with less police presence and more media than the early days of Occupy Wall Street. The rally later developed into hundreds of anti-war, anti-corporate and pro-labor activists.
The Stop the Machine event was planned to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the War in Afghanistan, and the usual effects provided the classic rally formula—a center stage with artists performing old protest songs from the 1960s and tables for organizations to give out their information about how to get involved.
Coordinated marches streamed into Freedom Plaza throughout the day, adding numbers to the stronghold in waves. First, dozens of veterans marched into the plaza emblazoned with ball caps and military uniforms, but also touting “Iraq Veterans Against the War” and “Veterans for Peace” memorabilia. They were followed by a contingent of workers involved in the labor battle in Madison, Wis., earlier this year, and then later by a flood of Latino workers.
“I think that capitalism, as we’ve done it in the U.S., this bizarre mixture of free markets and protectionism, has failed,” said Sarah Rose-Jensen, a graduate student at George Mason University. “It’s failed the 99 percent.”
When the top 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and little to nothing of its debt, the message becomes resoundingly clear. And while some were dismissive of the Occupy movements during their inception, their growth and spread to cities such as Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Dallas is proving that the movement’s reach is diverse, meaningful, and cohesive in a way few other movements have matched in recent decades.
“I look at the Capitol right there, and we’re a couple of blocks away from the White House, and I think of all the money that pours into those institutions from corporate lobbyists,” said Medea Benjamin, a national leader of Code Pink, Women for Peace who was also at the Occupy Wall Street protest recently. “That stops any decent legislation from coming out—whether it’s around the environment or it’s around trade agreements or war. It’s all infiltrated by corporate money.… I think [that’s] the missing half of the Wall Street protest is that that spills over into Washington D.C., and now we too are literally spilling over into D.C.”
Around 3 p.m. on Thursday, occupiers paid a visit to some of the institutions now overwhelmed by corporate money. The march took off with sounds of deep, steady drumming and trumpets blasting the announcement of their presence to surrounding city streets. One of the key themes of the DC movement and other similar occupations—the illegitimacy of corporate personhood—was captured sarcastically on a tall banner designed to look like the U.S. Constitution but with a header reading “We the Corporations.”
The march made its way toward the White House, where marchers stopped briefly to chant, and then quickly continued to the Chamber of Commerce. There, the activists crowded around the entrance to the building; four separate advertisements hung on the face of the building spelling one word: JOBS.
Benjamin took up a bull horn.
“We came out here because we heard you had some jobs,” she yelled, and hundreds erupted into a thunderous chant in response. “Where are our jobs!”
Police officers formed a line in front of the Chamber of Commerce’s entrance, preventing protesters from crossing. Many used the bull horn to share their stories about how they fit into the predicament of the 99 percent.
Benjamin gathered fake résumé forms from marchers with the intent of hand-delivering them to representatives of the chamber. But officers wouldn’t let Benjamin cross their police line, and the crowd chanted in unison at the police: “Who do you protect? You protect the 1 percent!”
Benjamin announced some time later that she and some résumé holders were able to break the police line non-violently; they had shut down the Chamber of Commerce for the day. Occupiers retreated to their new temporary—maybe long-term—home at Freedom Plaza.
“We’ve been running down this road for years,” said Christine McDonough, referring to herself and her husband. “We’ve been through three layoffs, and we’re both professionals. We’re not people who are uneducated.”
McDonough slept inside the state capitol building in Madison, Wis., during the struggle for collective bargaining rights, and she told Campus Progress that she organizes with her union as often as she can.
“We have skills,” she said. “But the corporations, they command, they layoff everybody, and they ship our jobs overseas.”
As the sun set for the evening, occupiers from McPherson Square held the now-regular general assembly at Freedom Plaza, a meeting full of organic expression and the #Occupy experiment in direct democracy principles of decision making. The heart of the Occupy movement is found in this tedious, but intensely important, nightly process. It’s a routine involving the breakdown of committees and the hashing out of declarations, and one of learning to listen to others’ views on how oppression affects them. It builds a true culture of solidarity.
“The general assembly concept and the committee concept, which is a mini-general assembly on a specific issue, what you really have is participatory democracy,” said Ann Wright, a retired Army Colonel and author of Dissent: Voices of Consciousness. “It’s great, and people really do feel like they’re empowered because they have a chance to speak."