October 13, 2011 in Opinion

Protests short on populists

Dana Milbank
 

WASHINGTON – By the time they got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong. But by the time they assembled on Freedom Plaza on Tuesday morning to plan the day’s civil disobedience, they numbered only 53.

Attempting to emulate the Occupy Wall Street protests, Washington activists and some out-of-town guests set themselves the lofty goal of occupying the Hart Senate Office Building. “We are there to shut the place down!” organizer David Swanson told his small band of followers.

But how to do this with only a few dozen demonstrators? Well, Swanson said, they could push all the buttons on the elevators – the way naughty children sometimes do in apartment buildings. “There are people who are wanting to go into the elevators and fill them and not get out and push all the buttons,” he said. “If you like that, do it.”

 This set off a lengthy debate in Freedom Plaza, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW, as activists came to the microphone to argue the pros and cons of elevator disruption.

 “Let’s face it, our numbers are not enough to shut this building down,” said the representative from Veterans for Peace. “I think pushing elevator buttons is stupid.”

 A woman wearing a Planned Parenthood pin and a “U.S. Boat to Gaza” T-shirt was ambivalent. “I’m ready to take over and shut down that building,” she said. “We don’t have that many people, but we need to do it. Maybe standing in elevators isn’t going to do it, but we need to figure it out.”

 Swanson was adamant. “We should be blocking down the elevators, blocking down the bathrooms,” he said, before designating an “elevator team” dedicated to the purpose. “We’re going after the building precisely to inconvenience everybody who works there.”

 In the end, they blocked neither elevators nor bathrooms, and inconvenienced nobody but a few Capitol Police officers, who silenced the demonstration after 20 minutes and a half-dozen peaceful arrests.

 The elevator dispute says much about the new movement’s troubled ascent. The Occupy Wall Street protests tapped the left’s pent-up populism and anger at corporate excess. But here in Washington, progressive activists attempting to duplicate the phenomenon have so far had difficulty broadening their ranks beyond the usual suspects from anti-war demonstrations.

I don’t say this with satisfaction: A revived populist movement could be a crucial counterweight to the tea party, restoring some balance to a political system that has tilted heavily to the right. But while the Occupy movement in the capital has invigorated left-wing groups – Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, Common Dreams, Peace Action, DC Vote, Community Council for the Homeless and a score of other labor and progressive organizations are represented on Freedom Plaza – it has not ignited anything resembling a populist rebellion. To swell their ranks, protesters recruited the homeless to camp with them.

 Already, there are factions. While the Freedom Plaza group, calling itself “Stop the Machine,” prepared to storm the Hart building, an AFL-CIO group was planning a conflicting event on the plaza. A few blocks away, in McPherson Square, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street had established an encampment of a few dozen sleeping bags.

 There’s no questioning their devotion (one young mom sat eating breakfast cereal in McPherson Square with her two young children Tuesday morning) or their anger (the National Air and Space Museum was shut over the weekend after guards used pepper spray on demonstrators).

 But where are the people? As the McPherson Square activists began to emerge from their sleeping bags during the Tuesday morning rush hour, commuters examined their display of protest signs. “Time to wake up,” announced one hand-lettered sign. Yet few here have awakened.

 “If your friends are in the hotel having their third cup of coffee, can you ask them to come out, please?” organizer Swanson urged his modest band on Freedom Plaza. Eventually, the crowd swelled from 53 to about 100 – still not enough for a respectable protest. “Please don’t have a march or parade,” Swanson urged them. “We don’t have the numbers for it.”

 By the time they filed into the Hart building, the demonstrators were outnumbered by reporters, photographers and police. The cops quickly confiscated their banners and sealed off the atrium. Curious staffers stepped from their offices to check on the protest but found little action.

 “That’s it?” one asked another.

   Yep. That’s it.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbankwashpost.com.


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