Bringing Down the House
Occupy D.C. builds a fort; cops tear it down. Did they send a message about foreclosures?
Photograph by David Weigel.
The gift arrived at McPherson Square right after 11 p.m. Saturday, and the Occupiers got to work right away. Occupy D.C. had been waiting for this one—$1,400 worth of wood, four large sections that would make a sort of church on the grassy, less-occupied south side of the square. The architect, an Occupier named Paul (no last name, thanks), designed it on weekends, and then helped 30 or so protesters raise it. Some nails, some hammers, two hours of work, and presto, Occupy D.C. had a barn, all ready to be covered with plastic and to start hosting “general assembly” meetings when the weather got cold.
It was a beautiful dream, and it died in a day. The barn would be taken apart and trashed after 31 Occupiers were arrested for refusing to leave it. The last holdout, a protester named David—yes, as in “and Goliath”—held off the cops as long as he could but was eventually taken to jail after relieving himself on the high-quality roof beams. Paul watched from the penned-off area that gradually filled up with Occupiers, shouting messages of solidarity until police took control of the barn and started scrapping it.
“The police put it in the dump,” he groaned on Monday. “They threw it away. It’s just so typical. They don’t reuse. They don’t think. They just have their orders. They don’t care about those trees. We put it up in two hours, and we could have taken it down in one hour, saved all of that wood.”
It was never going to be easy for a camping-based protest movement to make it through a winter. Cold weather stopped Napoleon, so why wouldn’t it stop a bunch of Occupiers? It’s possible to occupy a state capitol for a few weeks and get a steady stream of supporters willing to take turns camping. That was what happened 11 months ago in Wisconsin, for a pro-labor movement that quickly moved from protest to politics. But who can stand to stay outside, in tents, for months at a time? Who’s going to keep parks occupied for the long haul? The answer: performance artists, and people for whom a few hours of jail and $100 fines are totally worth it if they help promote the cause.
These people took command of the barn situation right away. On Saturday morning, around 10:45 a.m., police showed up in the park and asked protesters to take it down.
“We had an impromptu GA [general assembly] and we couldn’t come to a consensus,” remembered Sam Jewler, a member of Occupy D.C.’s media committee. “There were people who wanted it to come down, people who wanted to sustain it. So we basically decided to have everyone do what they wanted to do, have autonomous action.”*
Around 11:30 a.m., police formed a line around the barn and warned that anyone who stayed inside would be subject to arrest. The holdouts, including David and the lion-maned Adrian Parsons—a man who had previously made news for circumcising himself, live, at an art installation—did what came naturally. They occupied. Fifteen people attempted to join in, right as police were closing off the barn area with tape (and later fences). They were arrested. A standoff began, with the barn Occupiers deciding to “fight” instead of break down the structure.
For the next nine hours, there were two questions in the Occupy-verse. Would police break down the whole camp, thanks to these barn people? And what was going to happen to the folks in the barn? Rumors spread wildly as police cordoned off half the park with tape, creating a zone that only they, their horses, and their vehicles could access. The rest of the Occupiers, joined occasionally by tourists, stood along the fences and police tape, in front of the statue of Gen. James McPherson.
“For the first time,” shouted Parsons, legs locked onto the roof beams, “I’m as tall as General McPherson! You all look beautiful.”
There was nothing else to talk about. Around 5 p.m., police sent a building inspector into the structure, and one of the holdouts “mike checked” the crowd to inform us of a negotiation that might “keep this here legally.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.