December 1, 2011
Concepcion Picciotto is the original occupier. An anti-nuclear advocate, Concepcion set up a “peace vigil” in front of the White House on Jan. 1, 1981. Since then, her powerful neighbor changed five times. But Concepcion and her bright yellow signs have occupied that same stretch of sidewalk 24/7, 365 days a year, for three decades – minus occasional bathroom breaks.
When I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue on my way to work last spring, I was more captivated by the big white landmark Concepcion faced than her makeshift white plastic tent. I dismissed her encampment as quickly as I did the graphic anti-choice abortion trucks that cruise D.C., without the annoyed disgust.
But they weren’t the only protesters I chose to ignore during my seven months in Washington. In April, 5,000 young people rallied in front of the White House to call for green energy investments. I support that, but I didn’t see a reason to tuck my White House Intern badge into my blazer and join the demonstrators. My major is government, not activism. Like many of us in Claremont, I wanted to be an “insider.” In a few years, I could get a job on the Energy and Commerce Committee and help write climate change legislation. Why protest?
I may read Politico’s Playbook religiously, but I’m no more of a political insider than I was a doctor when four-year-old me used a plastic stethoscope to diagnose Beanie Babies. Yet I analyzed the environmental protest. The President agreed with the group’s intentions. But – as Gov. 20 drilled into my brain – governing is tough. Congress couldn’t even pass climate change legislation when Democrats controlled both chambers.
Young people are supposedly disappointed in President Obama and disillusioned with politics. Instead, I was disillusioned with protesting.
My disillusionment followed me back to Claremont, where my inside-the-system attitude fit in at CMC. But when I went to Pitzer for Occupy Claremont, I felt out of place. I arrived during an announcement about a Keystone XL pipeline action. I’d heard about the pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada, and knew environmentalists were against it. To avoid possibly disagreeing with what I hoped would be a thoroughly vetted decision by the Obama administration, – the “inside game” I wanted to play – I avoided the issue.
The Claremont anti-pipeline protest wasn’t that impressive, anyway. About thirty students took their picture with a sign and sent it to Obama. But their voices weren’t alone. On Nov. 6, 12,000 activists circled the White House and demanded the President stop the pipeline. Four days later, Obama announced the decision would be delayed until 2013. For now, the protest worked.
Immediately, guilt set in. I’d been too quick to side with the insiders. I’d forgotten why I was so enchanted with the Obama campaign in 2008: it empowered ordinary people to become leaders, both to elect a candidate and to fight for issues they believed in. The pipeline protesters demonstrated how organized activism could influence the system. As Obama reminded progressives a year into his presidency, “Keep holding me accountable.”
A certain level of disillusionment is necessary to work in politics – otherwise your ideals are crushed during your first internship. But, fellow wannabe insiders: don’t be disillusioned with activism. I may be skeptical about the un-organized organization of Occupy – I wish they’d rally behind the American Jobs Act – but the movement should be taken seriously. I won’t join Concepcion’s peace vigil, nor will I protest Condoleezza Rice’s Ath talk. But when an issue I’m passionate about comes up, I’ll organize. For now, I’m protesting disillusionment.