Hugo O’Doherty heads to Washington DC to see if Occupy is a worthwhile political movement or an ill-thought protest.
“You know what? They never even fucking told me. They never told me what they arrested me for,” shrieks Athena, a New Yorker whose voice is anything but that of a goddess. I was first drawn towards her because she was walking around the West lawn of Capitol Hill like someone who had been told that there was a nickel for every blade of grass she stepped on. Stomp stomp stomp. It was an unseasonably warm but soggy day, making for progressively squelchy stomps as the day wore on. She was simultaneously singing. Let it shine, let it shine. I’m gonna let it shine. All over the West lawn, I’m gonna let it shine.
It was like Marian Finnucane doing a Shakira impression, with a hint of Sarah Palin for good measure. Well, at least she wasn’t just standing there looking miserable with a ‘Down with capitalism’ sign. She was also taking dozens of photographs of people holding up a banner she had made with two simple words: ‘Occupy United’.
“New Year’s morning, I was arrested. In 2012 I started off my new year in jail,” she says, reliving memories of the NYPD slapping the cuffs on her slender wrists in Zuccotti Park. No fireworks, no midnight kiss, so not such a great way to enter a New Year, one would think.
“It went great. I was held till about 7am, but it was actually really fun because I was in the Paddy Wagon for a couple of hours with a bunch of other Occupy women and, with teamwork, we were able to hook up our live stream to text message whoever the hell we wanted to and we just did not feel limited. So actually it was a lot of fun.”
Athena spoke while snapping away, then abruptly asked for my card. My card? I’ve been in America for one day and have had a phone for about an hour. I made my apologies on the card front and made a mental note that calling yourself a journalist in this country and not having a wad of shiny cardboard slips on your person is akin to calling yourself a snow remover who carries only a miniature bucket and spade. You may as well not turn up. Even people with McJobs probably have cards. Junior vice-burger flipper supervisor.
This is Occupy Congress, a one-day extension of the Occupy movement whose focal point is Occupy Wall Street. That’s three Occupies in one sentence, and why not? The word is everywhere here, just a couple of hundred feet from one of the most iconic buildings in the world on the day Congress reconvenes. Congress, with its 11 per cent approval rating; that’s like if the population of California all said ‘they’re doing an okay job’ and every single other person across the other 49 states said ‘they’re doing a terrible job.’
So does Occupy have a political aim? “Oh it has a political aim,” states Athena, emphatically.
“I don’t think the Occupy movement should have any political aim and in itself will never support any political candidate,” states Mike, with equal fervour. He’s a fresh-faced man, no more than maybe 23 years old, who sat on a train for 60 hours to get here from Reno, Nevada. I didn’t seek him out, he just came up to me and said “you’re awesome.”
You know what I’m distressed about with the police? It’s that they’re gonna die in the same tax bracket as all of us. And the fact that they don’t believe that is a joke. They need to wake up.
The disparity between Mike and Athena, between East and West, between urban and rural, perhaps even between male and female, reveals what many commentators believe to be the fundamental weakness of the movement – it doesn’t know what it is. But that could also be its strength. It’s an open shop as long as you obey one commandment – the perceived cuddliness of politicians and corporations is fundamentally wrong and needs to be done away with. If you agree with that, you’re in.
Wildebeest, a Bostonian, is one of those loud, serial high-fiving types who could only be from this continent. At first I assumed he was using a pseudonym, but then remembered that this is a place where two men called Mitt and Newt are vying to becoming President. “Mama took one look and said this boy is gonna be trouble,” he declared when asked about his name.
As Wildebeest roamed across the lawn, his large Stars and Stripes flag waving upside-down from a pole, he started shouting and pointing “party on that lawn right there.” Why there? “The cop told me to get off the sidewalk and on the lawn so that’s exactly where I’m going.” Touché.
He did have one relevant question to raise though: “You know what I’m distressed about with the police? It’s that they’re gonna die in the same tax bracket as all of us. And the fact that they don’t believe that is a joke. They need to wake up.” This is a far more salient point than merely having a party. If American history has revealed anything, it’s the consistent use of police by lawmakers within divide and conquer politics. The paradox of how Occupy is developing is that the police seem to be helping to wind it down while also providing the fuel that keeps people angry enough to continue turning up.
Sam, a Floridian living in South Carolina, is one of those who has loitered within the movement in spite of a lack interest where he lives. Occupy Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto state, has had – at most – 12 people. They could have just had a game of six-a-side, but instead got the bus up to Washington for this rally, so commitment is not an issue here. He was not here to party, but to make some rather strident points: “You look at all these laws that are being put into effect – the only ones that are being put in effect are the ones being paid for by the corporations. You look at any other bills, they get lost for months at a time in limbo because nobody’s paying the congressmen to bother voting on them.
“There’s so many things that I just can’t understand why people didn’t even just look at it for a second and go ‘wait, no! No! That’s not how it’s supposed to be!’” What Sam exposes here is that the issues are probably far too big to be resolved by simply occupying public spaces. What he said also happens to be the basic mantra of the Tea Party movement, Occupy’s supposed ideological opposite.
After sunset, Athena, Sam, Wildebeest, and Mike joined about 1,000 others around a stage in front of the Congress building. A rather terrible comedian somehow managed to lose the crowd as a chorus of “March! March March!” rang out. And so they did march, some to the Supreme Court, some to the White House, some to the Capitol – all to reconvene later back where they started. This could be seen as speaking volumes about Occupy in general; people meet, people splinter off, people meet again back at the starting point. Movements ought to move, but this one is close to walking, quite literally, around in circles.