December 1, 2011
Reflections on the movement from the Washington Program
To say that Washington lives and breathes politics is not an exaggeration – and as a self-declared political nerd, I have finally found my place. Here in D.C., I have debated the intentions of the Founding Fathers with my fellow pocket Constitution-toting politicos. I have discovered the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy and the federal budget in a classroom of Claremont’s finest. I have seen (and heard) all forty vehicles of the presidential motorcade race down the street too many times to count, and I’ve attended numerous Congressional hearings on national security and foreign assistance.
Yet, with nearly a semester of experiences such as these behind me, it’s too easy to let Washington’s charm wear off, and to begin to take it all for granted. Luckily, every time I walk out of my office and catch a glimpse of the White House, I am reminded that I’m in the political center of the world. As I push through the crowds of tourists and Secret Service agents that enshrine 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s a rare day when I am not greeted by picket signs and slogans.
As anyone whose so much as visited D.C. knows, protests are as integral to the experience here as the Metro and Georgetown Cupcake. Demonstrations abound. Everywhere you look, people are seized with a Thoreauvian desire to fight injustice in one form or another. On my lunch break alone, I’ve born witness to an anti-Ahmadinejad campout, an “Obama is a war criminal” march, a duct-tape-over-the-mouth pro-life rally and, for the past two months, the infamous Occupy D.C. encampment.
What clearly sets the Occupy D.C. protesters apart from the others I have observed is their persistence. While the “Obama is a war criminal” marchers, for example, were here one day and gone the next, the “occupiers,” as they have come to be known, are in it for the long haul. McPherson Square in downtown Washington is now home to an encampment of more than one hundred occupiers, complete with a food service operation, two generators, a medical and dental tent, and even a library. The occupiers aren’t leaving anytime soon.
The ongoing Occupy movement has given a modern face to bold, symbolic dissent. The occupation has catalyzed debate, challenged the inertia of the status quo, and refused to acquiesce in the face of injustice. The occupiers have brought to the surface questions of equity, inequality, and the power of corporations and financial institutions in politics.
Until last week, I stood behind these goals of the Occupy movement, and fully sympathized with the protesters. Given the chance, I had even considered joining in during my lunch break. However, when the Occupy D.C. protesters wrongly occupied my building, my opinion of the movement was drastically altered.
On a Thursday morning like any other at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), about twenty-five occupiers arrived outside the building. Accompanied by droves of police officers and a model of a foreclosed home, the occupiers marched to the offices of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) – or so they thought. They chanted repeatedly, “human needs, not corporate greed,” and demanded that the federal agency responsible for overseeing the housing market do more to help homeowners who are “underwater.” My co-workers and I watched unimpressed from the third floor window as the “occupation” wore on for thirty more minutes. Eventually, the protesters realized their mistake and left, but not before shouting into a megaphone that they were headed to the “other FHFA building.” In that moment, my respect for the occupiers was substantially diminished.
Ironically, CFR is a non-profit, and more representative of the 99 percent than the 1 percent. Although the FHFA offices are around the corner from CFR, this organizational blunder demonstrates the evolving face of the movement. While it started with passion and clarity, as the weeks wear on, the Occupy movement has become so decentralized and unwieldy that its original vision has been compromised. The Occupy movement will likely continue into the coldest months of winter, but it may have already seen its organizational and effectual peak. Sadly, I’ll be leaving Washington at the end of the semester, but the occupiers won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.