Americans 'Occupy' for Change

Tent camps finally reach Washington, seem more politicized than other protests throughout the U.S.; inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes up.

At the beginning of August, I met Israeli enthusiasts who came to Washington DC from New York to erect a tent and protest in front of the White House in solidarity with the protests against social inequality and the high cost of living in Israel.

The police didn't allow them to put up the tent without a permit, so they marched around Lafayette Square in front of the White House, carrying the tent. On their bus ride to DC, they met an activist from the "Stop the machine" movement and shared some ideas.
"Soon", the Israelis promised, "tent cities will be spreading across the U.S., including Washington, DC. This is only the beginning". At the time, the guys carrying the tent in the heavy rain looked as detached from reality as Tahrir square is from the Wall street.

But not long has passed since that day, and the protests that began in New York have spread to other major cities in the U.S. Americans are erecting tent cities, organizing protests with banners with every message imaginable - from "Tax the rich" to "Hands off Iran" to "Every women is a queen" and even "No politicians - no wars!" - clashing sporadically with police and flooding social media outlets with live coverage of their experiences.

Last Thursday, the tent camps finally reached Washington and, not surprisingly, they seemed more politicized than the other protests throughout the U.S., and inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was mentioned.

The tent camp at Freedom Plaza, a two-minute walk from the White House, became home for peace activists of all kinds. This camp seemed more organized than others; an improvised stage had been erected in front of rows of plastic chairs for the audience, and a huge tapestry with the Declaration of Independence written upon it, followed by hundreds of signatures served as background for the stage.

There were artistic installations between the tents - and even a row of chemical lavatories (with a sign "we are the 99%!", one of the protests' slogans, attached to one of them), making the protest encampment much more comfortable.

The morning began for the protesters with some action inside the Senate Hart building at Capitol Hill. Several were arrested inside while opening banners and chanting loudly: "How do you fix the deficit? End the wars! Tax the rich!”

Two young protesters with kaffiyes on their shoulders that tried to enter the building were turned down by the security guard. "No banners inside!" he told them.

Alli McCracken (22), the pacifistic "Code Pink" movement DC coordinator, came in a T-Shirt reading "We won't be silent!" in Hebrew and in Arabic. "Washington, it's the natural next stop after the Arab spring, the protests in Israel. "Stop the machine" planned their own action in October, and then "Occupy the Wall Street" just happened. These are two different initiatives, but we support each other, it's basically the same message of people who feel their voices are not heard", McCracken said.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the "Code Pink" movement, said she is pleased with the protest turnout. "There are new people involved, the protests around the country are huge, and we came to say that the politicians should stop wasting our money on endless wars", Benjamin said.

The next stop, she said, was the financial committee protest that same day and she also said with protesters would be supporting the 120,000 postal service workers across the U.S. that were at risk of losing their jobs.

As the protesters that were arrested were escorted outside by the police, they were greeted by supportive chanting. James De-Woe, a bearded, tattooed and unemployed man from Indianapolis, said he came to Washington by hitchhiking, and intends to stay "until things will start changing".

"Yesterday we got permission from the authorities to stay 4 more months," De-Woe said. He can't define precisely what will be the sign of the change he expects, but is confident that the protests "are the only true answer for what is going on in the country".

Back in the camp, Tighe, a pacifist from California, was organizing a pile of protest signs - including signs with pictures of Republican Presidential Candidate, Congressman Ron Paul, with vampire teeth, and another calling to stop military assistance to Israel.

What does Israel have to do with all this?

"You know, we could use these 3 billion dollars of annual assistance to Israel on something else - say, creating job," Tighe said. "I am sure that without this arms race sponsored by us, Palestinians and Israelis could sit and figure out things between themselves."

Tighe related that he was in Gaza on several occasions, and recounted how a taxi driver brought him to tears when he told him that all he wanted was to be able to pick him up on his next trip from Ben-Gurion airport, and take him to the tour in Jerusalem.

"Your protests in Israel, Ahmed the taxi driver from Gaza and what's going on here, it's all interrelated. The governments only complicate things, and it's about time for them to understand that they don't have answers - we, the people, do - on the basic human level," Tighe said.

Tighe was one of the protesters who tried to get inside the Air and Space Museum over the weekend to protest the drones exhibition, some of whom were pepper sprayed by security guards.

"We didn't want any violence", he said. "We just wanted to start a conversation that amazingly hasn't happen yet in this country - do we really want our robots to kill people 14,000 miles away, that we barely know anything about how they live?"

The second encampment, at McPherson square, seems more chaotic - with fewer tents and younger people, some of them spending the night in sleeping bags covered with sheets of plastic.

A big sign reading "Occupy DC" welcomes the visitors, and young people can be seen sitting in circles on the grass. There are also several veteran homeless dwellers of the square scattered about the camp. The fence surrounding the statue of General James McPherson on horseback has became an improvised exhibition space for dozens of signs, calling on Americans to "Make love, not money" and "Amnesty for students' loans".

32-year-old Jary Roland moved to the DC camp from "Bloombergville" budget protests in New York. He claims that there is no need for protesters to present coherent demands.

"The press is looking for headlines, conflicts, but the most important thing that is going on here is not the demonstrations and arrests, but the conversations here on the lawn that give birth to new ideas, the feeling of community - real discourse," he said.

Roland says he has been unemployed and homeless for a year and three months. He studied philosophy and English literature, but since one doesn't make much money in his field, he went to work for a fund managing real estate.

After the economic crisis, he lost his job, found another – this time with a lower salary - lost it, after which he found himself wondering on his bicycle with some personal stuff, sleeping at random places, and finally joining the protests.

Washington, he says, was a place to move to because in New York protests were more local, whereas Washington is the place to start debates on the Federal level.
"There are people who think it's necessary to formulate list of demands. I don't think it's necessary. I think the point is to create space where everybody's voice will be heard, because it's not heard by the politicians and the press," he said.

Roland said that the situation had reached a boiling point a while ago. "President Obama's election was a symptom of this - he gave hope the system will be changed, but started taking money from the corporations because he wants to be reelected," he said.

Roland admitted that the local homeless are not always the greatest neighbors. "Some of them joined the movement, but many people become homeless because of drug addiction, psychiatric problems. They do not fit in. We are trying to solve it, to create secure space for everybody," he said.

Christina McKenna, a young single mother from Richmond, Virginia, has been living in a tent for six days with her 4-year old twins, Viola and Sebastian, who run around the camp all day.

"Until recently I was a student, but then they raised tuition by 8% and it became impossible to pay", she said. "I went to work as a waitress but quit to get here. I was always involved, took part in protests against torture and wars, and I was waiting for a long time for something that big to happen. I was planning to go to New York, but when I heard about this protest I decided it's safer to be closer to home," she said.

McKenna said that the people in the encampment had been helping with her twins. "It's like living with an extended family, perhaps people here are even nicer," she said.

"If they'll get sick, we'll go home until they get better and come back here," McKenna added, saying that she and her children will stay "until the system starts changing."

Natasha Mozgovaya
Christina McKenna
Natasha Mozgovaya