I’ve spent a few hours the past couple days at one of the Occupy DC protests. As I was told Thursday night during my visit, there are actually two going on simultaneously. One of them is in Freedom Plaza and is peopled by hardcore serious activists™. It trends a little older and grayer. This is because their demonstration had been planned much farther in advance, well before the original Occupy Wall Street in NYC got underway. Its numbers may be a few hundred more or so. This is the group that seems to be getting the most American news media coverage. I've spent my time observing the second gathering, which seems to have sprung up more spontaneously.
The one to which I refer is in McPherson Square and is dominated by young people and college students. The world media seems to be more present at this site. A Friend I spoke to reported being recently interviewed by Japanese television. She stated that she is glad to provide information to anyone with a camera who asks, so long as their requests are reasonable. This seems to be the case with the couple hundred or so who descended around a month ago. Discerning numbers is difficult because many participants have day jobs and only file in after work. Others are unemployed. Large numbers are camped out in tents, but not everyone has chosen to do so.
A Quaker folk singer and poet named John Watts played an hour long free show Thursday night. He is also a young adult and has some renown in certain circles, so the event attracted between ten to fifteen Friends. Had there been more than one day’s advance notice, the size of the audience would have been considerably higher. I received an e-mail from a fellow member of my Meeting yesterday morning informing me that she would have been able to double our numbers, had she had the time to better organize. Our numbers were likely to have been significantly increased if people had time to clear their busy schedules.
The issue here is that much of what transpires on the ground is decided upon quickly. Most peoples' lives outside the protests work at a totally different speed. They need time to prepare and one day's notice is just insufficient. Organizers have asked those of us in general sympathy to consider spending time on site or perhaps even getting involved themselves. I know many people who would do so, if they didn't have to worry about the demands of a 9 to 5 workday and the paycheck that comes from it. Many are glad they have a job themselves and are unwilling to do anything to jeopardize it.
Quakers, as a rule, love protests and being a part of them. Yesterday, a longtime member offered to cook breakfast on Sunday morning for the Occupy DC folks. Lots of other people have agreed to pitch in to assist her and to help out the best they can. They've wanted to assist for a while, but haven't quite known how. The gesture is beautiful and very touching. Call it social justice or whatever term you will. It’s a prime example of a spontaneous gesture of love and support. I’m sure among the Baby Boomers that memories of earlier days have come to mind. In anti-Vietnam War protests and elsewhere, Quakers were regularly present. Look for the Mennonites in a disaster and the Quakers at a rally.
The story goes that the Meeting was harboring a draft resister at the Meetinghouse at some point in the early Seventies. Whatever government/police agency was assigned to take him into custody informed us that they were likely to apprehend him soon. Knowing our options were limited, we made one request. We asked that he please not be arrested during Meeting for Worship. Unfortunately, this is exactly what was done. The arrest occurred in the middle of Worship, probably during a period of sustained silence, making it even more dramatic. I mention this anecdote because it explains the mentality and attitude of those with whom I regularly interact.
Returning to 2011, I’m not sure that this is quite the same thing. Even with all that I have seen, I still retain some skepticism. The movement has my support and my sympathy. So long as it conducts itself in a non-violent fashion, it always will. What I have observed personally has all the makings of a good start. It remains to be seen whether it will take on substantial growth. From my study of history, I’ve learned that most massive movements and revolutions usually have their genesis in extremely unpopular, incredibly offensive government actions.
The French Revolution resulted when a bankrupt nation instituted unpopular taxes. The English, or Puritan Revolution only came to pass when a singularly incompetent King managed to enrage the English, Scottish, and Welsh simultaneously. These sections of what would eventually be known as Great Britain were frequently at loggerheads with each other, and it is only by completely isolating himself that Charles I was the first European monarch to lose his head. A common enemy among differing groups has proven to be a unifying force throughout time.
I don’t think the Obama Administration, in an election year, would resort to something this extreme. Until that happens, I anticipate a steady drip, drip, drip of increased membership at Occupy DC or any Occupy movement. If bad economic times persist and unemployment stays low and unchanged, it may gain more traction. But in these times, I wonder whether something massive would ever be unleashed upon a weary public. What I see, even among the hundreds gathered in local squares and parks, is a weariness. People are tired and uninspired, but nowhere near a boiling point. If anger is the motivation needed, there's a long way to go from here.