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Photo by Paul Abowd

Protesters camp out at Occupy D.C.

Occupy movement drives stakes on K Street

Thursday, October 20th, 2011 

Bear was sleeping on the streets before Occupy D.C. existed. The licensed practical nurse, whose beard and build have made the nickname stick, lost his job and his house two and a half years ago. “I’ve got skills,” he says, “but nobody wants to use them.” He has slept all over Washington, but since Oct. 1 has landed at K Street’s McPherson Square as part of D.C.’s tent city protest.

Indeed, the 70-year-old, who declined to give his real name, has never felt less alone. Sparked by an occupation of tiny Zuccotti Park near Wall Street on Sept. 17, occupations have now spread to 105 U.S. cities. On Oct. 15, the protests went global. 

The Occupy movement, visible, vocal and hard to ignore, has already built a national base powerful enough to alter discussions about the American economy. Corporate greed and income inequality are on the national agenda, with pundits and politicians acknowledging the protesters and their rallying points. Called the American Autumn by some, protesters nationwide now face police crackdowns, an incessant question about demands and the harshest reality of all — a quickly approaching winter. But despite the pressures of politics and weather, occupiers are standing their ground. 

Early on Oct. 14, New Yorkers rallied to protect Zuccotti Park from eviction. Park owners Brookfield Office Properties had announced a cleaning that would have cleared the occupied park. Faced with an early morning crowd of thousands, the cleaning was abandoned, for now. Two weeks prior, several thousand people marched through downtown and to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Protesters marched onto the bridge, accompanied by police, who then penned marchers and began mass arrests.

Later that week, labor unions joined a march of 20,000, which was met with police batons and pepper spray. On Oct. 15 police on horseback confronted thousands in Times Square. While the protests have largely been peaceful and non-violent, with each clash, the movement has picked up steam — and media attention.

Protesters in D.C. have drawn inspiration from the Wall Street occupation, camping out at the intersection of corporate influence and policy making.

“We’re against the 1 percent who are the wealthy elite of the world who are financially dictating a lot,” says Ricky Lehner, a recent college graduate who arrived in Washington from Florida this week to stay indefinitely. K Street “is where they’ve affixed their hold on the government,” he said. 

Lehner and hundreds more are hunkered down, rain or shine. There’s a food tent, and the low hum of generators. Four national unions and major labor confederation AFL-CIO are bolstering the prospects for extended stays in camps across the country. In D.C., National Nurses United have set up a heated medical tent staffed by registered nurses.

‘The demands will come’

The D.C. protest is basking in a global moment of revolt and focusing on process before program. 

“I think we need to make sure we can talk to each other and work with each other, and take action together,” said one protester at an early October assembly. “When we get that set, the demands will come.”

Former Obama adviser Van Jones told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes: “They may not have message clarity from a D.C. perspective, but they have moral clarity.”

The young crowd has made a point not to formalize a list of demands, but there is no shortage of them. Campers say their very presence is the living document, a multifaceted set of aspirations that continues to grow.

In conversations at the New York and D.C. protests, common desires emerge: Fix the regressive tax code that shelters capital gains income, and end corporate citizenship and overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that has opened the campaign contribution floodgates. Elsewhere, encampments at Atlanta’s Troy Davis Park and Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza have made police brutality and the death penalty paramount causes.

Cecilia Azurduy came to protest in Washington because she says voting won’t be enough. “The election at this point is irrelevant,” she said. “They’ve shown themselves to be incompetent.” 

The 99 percent

The movement’s “we are the 99 percent” slogan opens room for growth beyond what has been a largely white protest. The D.C. occupation has formed a people of color working group. Organizers with Occupy the Hood are reaching out to communities of color that have been particularly hard-hit by the economic collapse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics put national unemployment at 9.6 percent in 2010, but it's 12 percent for Hispanics and 16 percent for blacks. 

The “99 percent” idea signals a shift from long-held views by Americans about the contours of the middle class. The wealthiest 20 percent own 80 percent of the nation’s wealth, but a 2010 Harvard study shows that Americans thought they owned 60 percent — still high, but far less disparity than reality. 

The top 1 percent of earners made $1.3 million in 2007, while the average income for the bottom 90 percent was $31,000. The much-reviled “1 percent” has weathered the economic recession by stockpiling: they own 35 percent of the country’s wealth. Corporate profits exploded in a recession during that unemployment increased by 100 percent. 

“Now it’s the mighty versus everyone else,” said Sahar Massachi, a computer programmer who came to D.C. for a conference and decided to stay to support the occupation. “The 99 percent includes people with day jobs, and some people in suits, too.”

A hard rain

On Oct. 13 the nightly general assembly huddled inside a nearby metro stop while rain turned the camp to mud. A small group of occupiers recounted their meeting with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose members pledged support. Protesters also discussed ways to support occupations under siege in other cities. Boston police arrested 141 people on Oct. 11, tearing down tents and pushing back on the burgeoning encampment. 

It is technically illegal to stay overnight in McPherson Square, but so far there has been no threat of arrest in D.C., according to legal observer Jeff Light. 

“An off-duty officer came by to support us outwardly on his morning run,” he said. 

The police may or may not turn, but the weather certainly will. When it does, Bear believes the movement will continue to captivate the public consciousness. “You can’t kill an idea,” he said.

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Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

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Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.