So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.
On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality. There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over. Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated. Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.
Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams
On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened. The cops said they would come. Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square. We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.” We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist. We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military. We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice. The police left. Protesters basked in victory.
A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.” I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage. Hundreds of cops surrounded the square. Horses watched on at the periphery. The park was sliced up by barricades. The tent of dreams had been taken down. The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck. The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.
Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away. There was a sense of betrayal, of violation. I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.
Soon the cops entered another section of the camp. They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away. At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat. A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp. Here we would stand our ground.
We waited on that front with slow boiling tension. We spoke again about why we occupy. We chanted in solidarity. “Whose park?” “Our park!” “Whose first amendment rights?” “Our first amendment rights!” We read passages about how we appreciated the library. At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize). All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.
As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away. The cops said they would inspect it. The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected. We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops. Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.
In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away. I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought. The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.
As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!” Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply. Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.” I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen. Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us. They were coming behind the tents, flanking us. I told some people what I saw happening. Then I heard screaming.
I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful. At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face. I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen. I stepped in between them. The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground. I picked myself up. He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more. I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay. He yelled “get up and walk away!”
Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical. I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”
He repeated “get up and walk away.” In his eyes I saw fear.
The big push
Around me others were pushed. Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them. It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt. At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon. He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face. My nose and teeth stung. I lost it. Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!” For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I. But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.
There were a few more instances of screams. I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues. I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”
One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”
The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?” Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.
Soon we were pushed into the street. The police closed off the park. We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion. I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”
My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”
Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street. At this point I had to leave. That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert. The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music. After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music. A deep disturbance clung to my brain. I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.
The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches. The police had broken their bones. One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized. His body would never be the same. My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face. I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track. Fortunately my nose got better.
I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process. I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally. People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation. But I needed them to understand. I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites. And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.
When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow. When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions. When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well. And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities. I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world. One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be. And thank you for reading my story.