Monday, February 06, 2012

The Decline and Fall of Occupy DC

This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper- T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

If local news reports and person on the street interviews were any indication, the city was thoroughly tired of Occupy DC. What had seemed so momentous for a while was revealed to be nothing more than a few hundred people gathered in a city square. With time, even believers became skeptics. A city weary of what they saw as much ado about nothing began to turn on the demonstrators.

The promise was outstripped by the reality. Only a very small, increasingly frail minority of Occupiers fought to keep the dream alive. Saturday morning, awakened at dawn, they looked more tired than outraged. A brick hurled in the face of a police offer made more of an impact than the series of nonviolent marches that had preceded it.

No one wanted to admit it, but the game was up. One by one, almost every other sustained encampment had been forced to disband. There was a palpable sense among most that the handwriting was on the wall. Protesters knew they were being allowed to stay for only a little while longer. No one knew when the hammer would fall, but recognized by process of elimination their eventual fate.

And by its conclusion, Occupy as a physical presence was not nearly as interesting as the analysis it prompted. As an intellectual exercise, Occupy had many phases and levels of discourse. Cynicism was always prominent, but apologists pushed back hard for a time.  But even they abandoned their perspectives when a real, coherent mass movement never materialized.

There were more people in my high school graduation class than at any time in McPherson Square. Even in my most optimistic days, I’ve never thought that seven hundred people have enough influence to redefine the direction of the world.

We wished for much more. Fellow Quakers threw themselves into action. Meals were prepared. Tents were purchased. Much brainpower was devoted to an asymmetrical, leaderless organizational structure. It was, however, necessary to acknowledge that hopes alone could not overcome simple realities. Occupy seemed to know how to fight for people, but not to fight alongside with people. The average hard-working DC resident might be able to buy a few meals here and there, but that likely was the extent of their willing participation. 

The movement simply did not have the resources and, more critically, the ideas to facilitate greater growth. Every morning, men and women on their way to work filed past the demonstrators. The two groups were distinct and separate. They never met.

I am fairly certain that many of the full-time Occupiers were being subsidized by someone. And by this I do not necessarily mean the government, by way of unemployment checks. Donations, benevolent parents, and personal savings are also strong possibilities. How else could one afford the ability to be a revolutionary? Without mainstream participation, a critical mass was established very quickly, one that reached capacity and then stagnated. 

With the collapse of Occupy, I wonder how history will record what happened. Will we remember the campers or the hyperbole, the commentary or the collection of tents? I sense we have not yet fully comprehended the spirit that caused so many spontaneous demonstrations. These outpourings of anger and indignation proved to contradictory, both widespread in their presence throughout the country and each singularly limited in influence. When all is said and done and when new grass sprouts in McPherson Square, will we say that we have observed the limits of public protest in the Twenty-first Century?

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