Occupy Congress: A Movement Gathers in Washington, D.C.


Black anarchist flags and the bright orange scarves of government employees unions were crammed side by side on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol yesterday, as protesters from the Occupy movement descended on Washington, D.C. from around the nation for Occupy Congress.

The day-long event, hosted by Occupy DC’s two frequently-at-odds encampments, included marches, legislative lobbying, and the by-now obligatory tussles with police. The day also felt like the closest the decentralized movement might get to a national convention, as representatives from occupations as far away as San Francisco, Portland and Albequerque compared notes and planned tighter coordination.

Leading up to yesterday, many inside Occupy Wall Street viewed the event with some suspicion. A December action also called Occupy Congress was organized by major national labor unions like the SEIU and Communication Workers of America, and reeked of co-option, as union leaders transparently declared the event an effort to pressure congressional Republicans to adopt Obama’s agenda.

Yesterday’s event was unrelated to the union show, but it’s emphasis on lobbying legislators still grated on more radical occupiers, convinced the government is too broken and corrupt to be worth engaging. Some New York occupiers had traveled down to Washington yesterday with the express intention of disrupting what they worried could turn into liberal milquetoast posturing.

Those worries proved largely unfounded, though, as radical occupiers made a strong showing at the event, and everyone from anarchists to union members seemed intent on minimizing divisions within the movement.

“Within any organization there are going to be different opinions on where to go,” said Donna Smith, a legislative advocate with National Nurses United, who came to the event to press her union’s call for a transactional tax. “We’re not here to try to define what Occupy Wall Street should be.”

“Unions know they don’t really have any momentum without us,” said Patrick Bruner, a frequent spokesman for the Zuccotti Park occupation. “And the truth is, everyone here is here because they know the government is broken, regardless of whether we can agree that it can be fixed.”

The Capitol was closed yesterday, and when occupiers flooded into nearby congressional office buildings, they were told by legislators’ staff that the representatives weren’t available to speak with them.

“Even the people who came here thinking they could talk to their representatives are learning otherwise,” Bruner said. “That’s a lesson worth learning.”

Like many New Yorkers in Washington yesterday, Bruner was surprised at the relative restraint of the Capitol police.

Protesters sought to provoke confrontations with the cops, taunting them and defying their efforts to keep the protesters off the sidewalks. But for the most part, Capitol Police refused to take the bait. For a moment it appeared that the police would arrest retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis, who made headlines when he was arrested in uniform in New York last November, but they reconsidered.

“You can see where the real center of power is in this country,” he said. “There are several thousand people here right outside the Capitol, and only like 50 cops. But when we get a few people down on Wall Street, the police response is crazy.”

Whether or not the differing police tactics indicated the impotence of government, the lack of conflict, the wide open spaces of the National Mall and the inability of the protesters to confront legislators lent the Washington action a sense of isolation and futility compared to the biggest marches in Lower Manhattan’s narrow, heavily policed streets.

Still, many occupiers said they found the event useful, if only for the way it consolidated the self-awareness of a far-flung movement.

“I met a lot of people and got a lot of ideas that I’ll be taking back with me,” said an occupier from Albequerque who identified himself as Camilo. “It took me days of ride-shares and hitchhiking to get out here, but it was absolutely worth it.”