Tag Archives: Occupy movement

Unoccupying D.C.

Protesters occupying two downtown Washington, D.C., locations are being told to pack up and leave, and are being forcibly removed—even arrested—if they don’t leave voluntarily. After months of tolerance and inaction, U.S. Park Police have started enforcing the law on no overnight camping in parks.

Respecting people’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression from government interference and the concomitant right to peaceful assembly have underpinned acceptance of the occupiers in the two parks at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. However, District sanitation officials have been concerned for weeks about deteriorating sanitary conditions, especially at the McPherson camp, with rat sightings becoming commonplace, even during daylight. A congressional committee also started investigating the violation of no nightly camping on federal land. Park police had also been asking occupiers to remove an enormous tarpaulin—the “Tent of Dreams”—that they had erected around the statue of General McPherson, a Civil War hero, in the center of the Square.

Police cleared most of the tent community at McPherson Square yesterday at dawn. As of this afternoon, the remaining stragglers on the one side of the square defiantly maintained they would never leave. At Freedom Plaza, from the volume of police on the plaza and in the immediate area this afternoon, it is appears similar clearing procedures are imminent. The number of tents at Freedom Plaza has certainly decreased in the last days, with campers evidently heeding warnings to pack up and leave. Churches in the District have apparently been offering temporary shelter.

A couple of visits to the two sites in recent days left me with some impressions. The physical squalor of the McPherson camp was impossible to ignore. Nonstop human traffic since the occupation started in early October, coupled with rain, sleet and a little snow, have ensured that the formerly grassy square has become a mushy, gooey mud bath (no wonder occupiers resorted to sleeping on pallets). Paving at the Freedom Plaza site facilitated a less unsanitary environment.

But more than the deterioration of the physical environment, what struck me was how the nature of those now occupying the camps, especially McPherson, changed. The median age of the occupiers definitely increased. Gone are the younger, idealistic, perhaps naïve occupiers of autumn. Those remaining are older, more seasoned activists; some are anarchists and others nihilists. The gentle bearded young man from California with whom I chatted last November as he munched his breakfast in his “tent” of draped clear plastic with its sign proclaiming “Occupy DC is transparent and participatory” seems long gone.

Despite admonitions such as “Cops: Don’t Be Tools of the 1%” seen earlier at McPherson, one could argue that police are doing “Occupy D.C.” a favour by clearing out the camps. This phase of the Occupy movement here in D.C. had run its course. But the occupiers couldn’t back down without losing face. Park police have now given them the way out. It was time anyway for the occupiers to retreat, regroup, consolidate, reassess, and plan new strategies for spring. And now they can do so.

The Occupy movement has unquestionably influenced the national debate. The discussion it provoked on income and social inequality, corporate greed, indebtedness, and unemployment is ongoing. Indeed, its focus on social inequity in the United States and how economic policies benefit the already haves is central in current discourse. President Barack Obama is urging tax reform so that the wealthiest pay more than they have been. He highlights the issue that Warren Buffett brought to the fore—that Buffett’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than Buffett himself does. The tax returns of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be running for president, with a net worth estimated to be around $250 million, further underscore this point. Romney is shown to have paid a tax rate of 13,9% in 2010 on capital gains from $20 million in income. Revelations such as this and Romney’s general awkwardness in discussing money, wealth, and poverty should surely galvanize the Occupy movement as its followers deliberate the way forward.

As the Occupy movement in D.C. ends its current phase, perhaps the miracle is that the D.C. camps lasted as long as they did. An unusually mild winter certainly helped. While those in the ski industry have cursed the relative lack of snow, those in Occupy D.C. were grateful.

Update on February 13, 2012: As of this afternoon, McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza still house a few token Occupy D.C. tents.  No sleeping or camping is permitted in these tents. Compliance with Park Police also requires tent flaps always to be open so police can confirm no bedding or personal effects are being kept there. Occupiers are apparently maintaining a constant presence in the parks. I was told that people are sleeping in shifts elsewhere—such as in churches and shelters—and then taking turns keeping vigil 24/7 in the parks. The library tent at McPherson Square still stands, packed tight with books and magazines, but the “OccuTeaHouse” is gone.

Update on February 20, 2012: The Washington Post complements the Park Police for the way they handled the Occupy D.C. protests.

Energizing the base—and suppressing the opposition—in 2012

The state of the U.S. economy is the critical indicator for this year’s presidential election, but who better turns out their base will be as pivotal. Both President Barack Obama and probable Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney have significant challenges in this respect.

While President Obama continues to receive high personal approval ratings, his overall job performance, most pointedly his stewardship of the economy, is viewed dimly—although perceptions have improved recently as he has become more populist in tone and aggressive in his criticism of Republicans. The classic question Americans ask in an election is whether they are better off now than they were four years previously. A majority of Americans perceive their situation as having deteriorated since Obama became president. As a result, enthusiasm and support for Obama have unquestionably waned; many are disillusioned.

The long-stated Republican goal of ensuring Obama to be a one-term president—see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the subject—means too that the Republican presidential nominee—the “anti Obama”—needs to be someone around whom the party can really rally. The tight 8-vote victory of presumptive nominee Romney over Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul running a close third, in this week’s Iowa caucuses highlights that Republicans are not united by or enthralled with Romney’s candidacy. The Republican faithful do not support Romney with their usual commitment to their leading presidential contender. He is perceived as too moderate and inconsistent on conservative issues—he has derisively been called “John Kerry without the medals”—in a political party that has lurched rightward due to Tea Party influence, and his Mormon faith is problematic for the many evangelicals in the party.

So both the Democratic incumbent and the likely Republican contender have enthusiasm deficits. Turnout issues extend to the demography and make-up of their supporters.

President Obama has lost luster with many of his young, previously keen supporters. Youth in 2008, many voting for the first time, were greatly motivated by Obama’s campaign of change, his message of hope, and his inspiring personal story, and they canvassed, organized, and turned out for him in a big way. Now they are most disappointed. Change hasn’t come to the extent promised, and the tough jobless economic recovery and brutal political environment in Washington have crushed the hopefulness Obama represented.

The Occupy movement, which involves some former but now disillusioned Obama supporters, presents a challenge for Obama. Obama is part of the “1 percent” by dint of his financial success as the author of Dreams from My Father, his sensitive exploration of his roots, and The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 policy prescriptions for America; his life embodies the proverbial “American Dream”. Obama frequently espouses the themes the Occupy movement introduced into American political discourse, but it would be politically suicidal for him to get any closer to Occupy. Similarly, Occupiers might not feel motivated to organize or work for Obama this time, but it would be a massive blunder if they remained indifferent and didn’t turn up to vote for him on November 6. Particularly since Obama’s likely opponent is a very wealthy former CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity company, who epitomizes crony capitalism on Wall Street and the “1 percent”. Indeed, Romney was born into the “1 percent”. His father too was a CEO, of a car company.

A factor from the Iowa caucuses to watch was the strong turnout of young people for isolationist Ron Paul. Did they vote for Paul because of his obvious anger and disgust at the way things have been run? Could the main candidates re-engage these alienated youth for the general election?

Apart from youth and students, other constituencies vital to electing Obama in 2008 were women, poor people, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. Republican lawmakers in over a dozen states, many of them so-called “swing” or battleground states, have passed laws in recent months that aim to restrict access to the polls. These laws intentionally target Democratic-leaning sections of society by imposing strict voter-ID registration requirements, limiting registration drives, and reducing early voting. In December 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would investigate such laws, to ensure they were not discriminatory or disenfranchising. Other ways have been used to limit voter turnout. For example, an aide to former Maryland Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich was recently convicted for initiating robocalls to African American voters in the 2008 gubernatorial election, telling them erroneously late that Election Day that they didn’t need to go and vote as the result had already been established.

Resorting to these types of initiatives to restrict voter turnout highlights a perception challenge for Republicans. The Republican Party is increasingly seen as a party of white, born-again, blue collar Americans. A wry observation from National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” underscores this perception problem. Commenting on the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, Alonzo Bodden noted that “Surprisingly, Herman Cain becomes the Republican nominee [he earlier suspended his campaign]. And when forced to choose between two black people, the conservatives decide to nuke the planet instead.”

The strong desire to deny Obama re-election may have Republicans flocking to the polls, even if they are lukewarm about their eventual nominee. Dismay with the gridlock and partisanship in Washington—the public has given Congress its lowest-ever job performance rating of single digits—could result in yet greater voter apathy, or could concomitantly inspire voters to emphatically kick out all incumbents.

So, folks, if you thought the tone of the 2011 local elections was combative (see the photo of a Virginia campaign placard), watch out for 2012. It’s likely to be worse.

The “99 percent”

A tense standoff last night between Occupy D.C. protesters and police over an unauthorized wooden structure that protesters provocatively erected and police predictably took down, arresting 31 in the process, may escalate into a wider confrontation. Police may now decide that the two Occupy D.C. camps must be cleared. Or the camps may be allowed to continue, so long as the occupants resume their previous non-aggressive style. Whatever official decision is made, as the temperature dips further this winter, I predict that the ranks of Occupy D.C. are likely to thin.

Police in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Portland, amongst other cities, have already evicted protesters from parks and arrested those who resisted leaving. The clearing of the University of California at Davis campus was particularly controversial due to police pepper spraying kneeling protesters, actions that were captured on video. Mayors have justified clearing the parks as necessary for public health, and overnight camping is prohibited in many parks.

Yet the factors that motivated the Occupy movement have hardly dissipated. They are still very much in play. These include anger at expanding income disparities, where the wealthy “1 percent” gets richer and richer and the rest of society—the “99 percent”—receives diminishing or no benefit. Protesters are also disgusted at crony capitalism and how individuals and institutions in the financial and mortgage sectors were not punished for their role in the 2008 financial collapse and mortgage crisis but were instead bailed out. There is also deep frustration over ongoing unemployment and the lack of prospects, and worry about debt and the inability, for example, to repay student loans.

While the Occupy movement may have a winter go-slow, there is no question in my mind that the movement will be back in the spring, especially because of the pivotal presidential election in 2012.

The Occupy movement has profoundly changed political discourse in the United States. All discussion now on how to revive the economy to foster job creation while simultaneously cutting spending and raising revenues to cut the federal debt is phrased in terms of the impacts on high-earners, the middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. Where to make necessary spending cuts and how and for whom to increase taxes are the core issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. That is the accomplishment of the Occupy movement.

As I walked through the two camps of Occupy D.C. last week, chatting to people here and there, the significant political impact of the Occupy movement was not all I pondered. I marveled, honoured, and celebrated freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The two Occupy D.C. camps are in the heart of Washington, D.C. The one camp, Occupy McPherson, is literally two blocks northeast of the White House; this is where yesterday’s clash with the police occurred. The other camp is at Freedom Plaza. This site is flanked by Pennsylvania Avenue as the road heads from the White House and the Treasury Department to Capitol Hill, passing the Willard Hotel, one of D.C.’s swankiest, and the National Theatre, both now gaily festooned in Christmas finery.

Yes, Washington is the “protest capital” of the United States, so local authorities are used to this type of activity and are conditioned to tolerate it. Yes, prior to yesterday’s skirmish, police had issued warnings to D.C. Occupiers about, for example, urinating in public and the like; possible pretexts to clearing the camps? Nevertheless, the camps are an extraordinary sight, and their persistence in their prominent locations highlights the core values of a tolerant society.

During my most recent stroll through Occupy D.C. camps, I wondered how other societies marked by huge disparities in income between rich and poor would handle such ongoing protests. I tried to imagine “Occupy Beijing”, with protesters camping in Beihai Park, the dusty public park nearest to the lush, well-manicured Zhongnanhai, Chinese leaders’ official compound in the heart of Beijng. The Chinese leadership’s initial tolerance of weeks-long protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a massive blood bath. Today on Tiananmen Square, any attempt at protest, whether it is shouting obscenities or unfurling a critical banner, is squashed immediately by the vigilant, always present security officials. Instant arrest is guaranteed.

I thought about other protest movements that have emerged from the “99 percent” in 2011: The groundswell of public discontent in Arab countries that has felled dictators; and the protests in India supporting activist Anna Hazare’s campaign for tougher laws against chronic graft.

As I meandered amidst the tents of Occupy D.C., I wondered about South Africa, my home country with its alarming income inequality. Wealth there is concentrated in a small elite, government and corporate corruption is now widespread, unemployment is shockingly high, and many young people feel they have no prospects or productive means to improve their lives. Despondency increased with recent passage of a democracy-narrowing Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) whereby classified information that is in the public interest cannot now be disclosed. Exposing government corruption or malfeasance is now seen as threatening national security.

How tolerant would South African authorities be of an “Occupy Pretoria” or an “Occupy Cape Town” that tapped into public disgust at government corruption? Imagine a tent city of frustrated, unemployed youth and other representatives of the “99 percent” in the terraced gardens under the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or in the Gardens adjoining Parliament in Cape Town. Would the South African government allow such months-long encampments? I reckon neither an “Occupy Pretoria” nor an “Occupy Cape Town” would be tolerated as long as Occupy D.C. has been allowed to endure.