It had to go, all of it, the bedrolls and blankets and crusty Nalgene bottles, the comfy camp accoutrements that have, over the course of four months, turned McPherson Square into a radical protest experiment, communal living cooperative and REI advertisement.
“Occupy is supposed to mean occupy,” says Eric Kovacevic, as he and a companion methodically piled garbage bags full of their assorted stuff — pillows, clothing, travel-size toiletries — outside his domed tent. “You know, like [the United States] has occupied other countries.”
Kovacevic, 28, came from Minneapolis two months ago to join the Occupy D.C. encampment off K Street NW. On Monday afternoon he was packing up, per orders from the Park Police, who had announced stricter enforcement of the ban on overnight camping. It was a complicated ban. Tents could stay. Tents counted as symbols of political protest. But not the camping equipment inside the tents, which counted as symbols that people were sleeping illegally on government property. Thus, the equipment had to be removed, and the tent flaps had to remain unzipped and the people had to remain awake. Photos: Faces of the Occupy DC movement
Photos: Faces of the Occupy DC movement
Kovacevic had heard a rumor about alternative sleeping arrangements, like a guy in Virginia who supposedly said he would let the protesters occupy his land. “But that’s not really the point,” Kovacevic explains.
Occupying a yard that you have been invited to stay in isn’t really occupying. It’s just being a houseguest.
And occupying a park that you’re no longer sleeping in, that no longer contains your possessions . . . is that occupying? Or is that just standing around with a protest sign?
The places that became residential symbols of the national Occupy movement — Zuccotti Park, outside L.A.’s City Hall, Denver’s Civic Center Park — became such because of their permanence. These were not drop-in protests, pop-up rallies. These people came, and they came with Coleman camp stoves. They came with mattress pads and Tempur-Pedic neck supporters. It was passion and principle that made Occupy into a protest movement. But it was sleeping bags that made it occupied. What set this movement apart from other movements? The stuff. The stuff and the sleep.
“I’ve got my sleeping bag, pillow, dried oatmeal,” says James, who runs the Radical Space library tent and declined to give his last name. He came from Orlando. “Imagine taking your medicine cabinet, your kitchen, your bathroom and putting it all in a backpack.”
The stuff allowed for the development of infrastructure, the borrowed-cup-of-sugar community that defined Occupy. The sleep created a sense of permanence. What is the future of a not-technically-occupied Occupy movement?
On Monday at McPherson Square, protesters pondered this question. “Evicted from our home by the banks. Evicted from our tents by the police. There is no safe place to rest,” read the side of one spray-painted tent.
A good many protesters opted not to remove their stuff at all. As the noon deadline set by the police approached and then passed, the stuff that had enabled the protesters to endure a winter in Washington — the fox-den hidey-holes of cold-weather whatnot — remained defiantly inside tents. To the office dwellers who came to the park to see what would transpire as the deadline approached, the site looked little changed from the encampment that had sprung up in early October. It was muddy and cluttered. Protesters rallied at the center of the square, engaging in call-and-response chants, and digging in their heels for a stand-off with police that, as of mid-afternoon, had not occurred (the mood was reportedly less raucous and more zen over at Freedom Plaza, the site of Washington’s second Occupy encampment).
Several Occupiers erected a blue, billowing “Tent of Dreams” over the statue of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, allowing ear holes for the general’s horse and one for the general’s head. “Let us sleep so we can dream,” they began chanting, which gave the impression that what everyone really needed was economic equality, Ambien and a pair of slippers.
“People will be catnapping their way through this,” says Eric Lotke, a middle-aged attorney and protester, discussing strategies for keeping the park “Occupied” without being “occupied.” “The micro-tactical question of what happens to the camp doesn’t really matter.”
“The court says tents are part of the protest,” says Bob Jansen, 18, as he distributed copies of the camp’s official newspaper, the Occupied Washington Times. “But we can’t sleep here, and I feel sleeping itself is a protest statement.”
As the afternoon passed, police arrived to take inventory of protesters’ equipment, and spectators arrived to gawk in the chilly, brilliant weather. Many protesters said they would sleep nearby or bunk with friends and return to the encampment in the daylight.
Some believed that the new enforcements would not alter the ultimate meaning that McPherson Square has come to hold in the local Occupy movement.
“It’s impacting the physical location but not the spiritual location,” says John Zangas. “I have books. It’s going to be a place for meditation and reading,” he said of his tent.
“There,” he says, wiping the inside of the structure down with a Clorox wipe. “Now I’ve come under full compliance.”
When asked where he plans to spend the night, Zangas, who has a communications job in Washington, looked briefly confused.
“I’m going to be sleeping in my apartment in D.C.”