It’s lunchtime in McPherson Square in downtown Washington, and a young couple who met at the ongoing Occupy D.C. protests are cuddling on an air mattress and talking about corporate greed.
Kathy Elliso, 22, and Steve Hartwell, 23, have started dating, so to speak, in the 10 days since the Occupy D.C. demonstrators set up their tents and their “Tax the rich” placards in this park along the lawyer-and-lobbyist-dense K Street corridor. They are joining protests that have spread to cities around the country since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last month in New York.
She liked how the underemployed construction worker who builds pools described America as “broken.” He respected how the petite protester with braided sandy hair still spends time here even though she has to commute to Whole Foods in Reston, where she works in the prepared-foods section.
The park they occupy has a corner piled with blankets labeled “comfort station.” The grassy space is scattered with guitars sporting “All my heroes have FBI files” stickers; skateboards, footballs and towels are imprinted with the American flag. Along the periphery of the square are posters that say, “The Revolution will not be Privatized,” “Give me Liberty or at least a Job. (I’d prefer both.)” and “Arab Spring? How about an American Autumn?” Some young people have symbolically hung their résumés along the park’s black metal fence.
“Mostly I just like how we have created a community here for all of the isolated, unemployed youth in America,” says Hartwell, who resembles an unwashed James Dean with eyebrow piercings.
Hartwell, who is from Richmond, says word is getting out online, and he predicts that more unemployed young people will join the occupation, which is still tiny compared with Manhattan’s.
Behind the young couple is a row of food stations with giant jars of peanut butter and jelly. There’s a jumbo family pack of Sun Chips from Costco and dozens of cardboard coffee boxes from Corner Bakery and Starbucks, along with a supersize bag of Cheerios and trays of sandwiches from Cosi donated by an anonymous benefactor.
The scene feels a little bit like a Grateful Dead concert — if the show were sponsored by Frito-Lay. There’s also a composting station and a blackboard with a schedule of the day’s events: “March/Dance Party to US Trade Reps and The Mall, 4 p.m.” The homeless who usually occupy the park sit on benches nearby. They say not much has changed, but now they get slightly better food.
While the Rev. Al Sharpton and rapper Kanye West have visited the protesters on Wall Street, Washington’s occupiers are rallied Wednesday afternoon by a guest appearance from consumer activist Ralph Nader. Wearing a rumpled suit, he shakes hands and talks economic injustice with the protesters.
“It’s amazing how inspirational the Arab Spring has been for our country,” he says as young people emerge from their rain-soaked tents on an otherwise low-energy afternoon. “We need an American Autumn. There are 25 million Americans who are unemployed. The U.S. government is spending money on wars while we don’t have money to pay our mortgages and student loans. The Occupy movement is the beginning of something that can turn this around.”
Some tourists stop and take pictures. But, mostly, throughout the day, a steady stream of curious office workers in their Ann Taylor uniforms stroll by, which only adds to the surreal Woodstock-meets-Washington vibe.
They roll their eyes at the barefoot protesters washing their hair in a park water fountain. One mumbles to a friend, “I didn’t know Washington still had hippies.” Others seem supportive and discreetly give cash donations and spend time reading the protest signs.
There’s also a protest at nearby Freedom Plaza, but that one has more veteran protesters from the Vietnam War era and is louder, with more chanting. McPherson Square is filled with under- and unemployed young people from around the country and has a more mellow feel, like a peaceful picnic with a political agenda.
Most of the occupiers are not morning people and sleep in past 9, their tents still as commuters hurry past them and into nearby office buildings.
Stephaine Huppert, 27, is at the square reading the placards. She is working as a graphic artist now but has been laid off twice since 2008.
“I have to say, I respect them and I think they are brave,” she says. “I probably won’t come out here and do this. For our generation, they are doing what everyone else is too lazy or scared to do.”
There’s a bathroom strategy for those who need facilities, mostly involving the use of two nearby Starbucks locations. Depending on the same corporate America that they deride is an irony the protesters don’t miss. Some even joke that the park could easily be renamed “Starbucks Square” because of all the bathroom time the coffee chain has permitted.
“We’re in a vicious cycle in America where we are attached to corporations, but it’s a trade-off to make this protest work,” says Thom Reges, 26, who is on the protesters’ sanitation committee. Out of work, he recently moved from Michigan to Fredericksburg.
His new home is a sleeping bag under a tree in McPherson Square. This week, the occupiers hung a large American flag at the park’s entryway.
“We are true patriots — that’s what this is about,” Reges says. “Our generation can’t be remembered for watching it all just slip away.”