Diplomacy doesn’t get a holiday on Occupy Thanksgiving


Occupy D.C. protester Bo Han, left, of Atlanta has his plate filled with a Thanksgiving meal by volunteer Lynn Marshall at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
November 23, 2011

It turns out that getting an RSVP from Occupy D.C. is at least as complicated as getting an RSVP from any organization in Washington.

Inviting revolutionaries — especially revolutionaries without formal leadership — to Thanksgiving dinner would require an understanding of newly created principles, navigating an ad hoc democracy amid blue tarps, trudging among encampments and weaving between young idealists and old idealists. Then waiting to see who showed up.

This is why, last week, James Lee, an organizer for Occupy Faith D.C., an interfaith coalition created to fortify the encampments for winter, found himself standing in a muddy park on a rainy night. Lee is trying to extend an invitation to Occupy D.C. to a Thanksgiving eve dinner at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where volunteers have planned a meal — careful to include vegetarian, vegan, Kosher and halal dishes — for the protesters.

The guest list includes the Occupy D.C. protesters in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza as well as occupiers who have recently marched from New York City. Before Lee can get them to the table, each group must come to an agreement on whether to accept his invitation.

“At McPherson Square, everything has to be agreed to,” Lee says. “McPherson Square has a very rigorous consensus methodology to making decisions.”

The following night, he arrives at McPherson Square on time for the general assembly — a gathering on a muddy plot. A cold rain falls. Lee inquires about the process. He is told that an invitation would be considered an announcement and must come from the outreach committee. The occupiers gather. An organizer explains the rules.

“What’s the best way to get direct feedback?” Lee asks.

“You might ask for a temperature check,” a man in black says. People wave their fingers up for affirmation or down in opposition.

Lee makes the announcement, but the response is inconclusive. Someone pulls him aside and explains that Wednesday might not be a good day for the meal — the occupiers have planned “an action.” Thanksgiving dinner is not considered an action, which is a euphemism for “protest.”

“The big challenge is the schedule,” Lee says as the cold rain drips. “We are on a week-to-week schedule. But these people operate hour to hour. I still have work to do.”

He returns Monday. The occupiers meet early because of more rain. Lee makes another announcement — this time through the outreach committee. The assembly agrees, a unanimous upward flutter of fingers.

“It is stressful to be here, always representing the group in some way,” says Kelly Canavan, 36, a retired teacher from Accokeek. “It is stressful to have people always taking your picture and interviewing you and watching you. People are going to take a collective rest and be back Friday.”

In the middle of the camp Tuesday, the conversation has turned to the idea of indulgence. How to reconcile the rallying cries against greed with celebrating a holiday that has in part come to mean indulgence.

“For me, there is a place for us to occupy Thanksgiving,” says Jeremy John, 30, a Web developer from Indiana. “And be part of it without fully ascribing to its original historical roots.”

Alec Kerestesi, 20, a creative writing student from Pittsburgh, agrees. “We have gotten into the mind-set that happiness comes in the form of mindless indulgence. But I think it is a decent thing for them to do, to invite us to dinner. What better way to bring people together than over a holiday dinner.”

On Wednesday morning, Lee is still unsure how many occupiers will come to dinner. But volunteers busy themselves with preparations. By 2 p.m., guests begin to trickle into the banquet room.

At a folding table sit Atom Jenkins, 22, and Owen Johnson, 23, both of Arlington County, who have just completed the march from New York — Johnson, without shoes. “I left New York with no shoes,” he says. “Because I’m very stubborn, I never got shoes along the way.”

Jenkins, wearing a rainbow-colored peace flag, considers the term “Occupy Thanksgiving.” Before him is a paper plate on which he has placed a vegan meal of mashed potatoes, cranberries and curried cauliflower. “Occupy Thanksgiving . . . is not about occupying a location. It’s a state of mind. A movement.”

The protesters have just returned from a protest at the Hart Building, where they rallied in support of the 99 percent. “It’s a general push toward good,” Jenkins says.

But for now, they say, it’s important for the movement to pause for a good meal. The revolution will continue tomorrow.

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