With a police escort, the group carried a tie-dyed peace flag, an American flag and a yellow bandanna affixed to a stick into McPherson Square, home of the growing Occupy D.C. encampment.
Planting their flag in the District, they immediately held a meeting to try to figure out how best to take their frustrations to Capitol Hill, a growing focus for the movement that started Sept. 17 in a park near Wall Street but now includes more than 1,000 occupation sites around the world.
“I will march till my feet bleed to make this point,” Mike Gibb, 21, of Bel Air, Md., told several dozen reporters and well-wishers at the park. “You may ask why I went on this march. I ask you, ‘Why didn’t you?’ ”
On Nov. 9, before New York police raided Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, the 21 protesters set out from Manhattan to take their message to Congress, timed for when the congressional “supercommittee” would issue its decision on how to reduce the deficit.
They walked through Trenton, N.J.; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Del.; Joppatowne, Md.; and Baltimore, then to College Park, relying on supporters for food, a place to sleep and some cash.
Although half of the original marchers dropped out before arriving in the District, the group picked up supporters along the way. After congressional leaders announced Monday that the supercommittee had failed to make a deal, the marchers quickened their pace to arrive a day ahead of schedule.
On Tuesday, in a chilly rainstorm, a drummer led the protesters south on Rhode Island Avenue while numerous motorists honked in support. Owen Johnson, who attended Arlington County public schools, marched the entire route without shoes.
“I don’t think most people even realize what it’s like to walk two miles,” Johnson, 23, said as he walked near the District’s Eckington section.
Darin Annussek hobbled into the District on crutches after getting severe shinsplints two days earlier.
“I know there is a lot of complacency, but you just can’t settle,” Annussek, 36, said while walking near the Bloomingdale neighborhood. “You have to keep fighting for things, and I feel personally this movement speaks to something.”
The marchers’ arrival in the District comes at a potentially pivotal point for the Occupy Wall Street movement, both in New York and locally.
With police across the country moving to break up encampments, the group is increasingly divided over how best to keep its message relevant.
Although polls in the early days of the movement showed broad public support, some recent surveys indicate that some of the support might be waning amid news reports about sporadic violence and sanitation concerns at some encampments. Some supporters are urging the protesters to shift their attention to Washington or into political organizing, while others want them to stay focused on New York bankers and stockbrokers.
Even in the District, where Occupy groups in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza have found acceptance from police and local officials, the protesters at times struggle over how best to keep the public’s attention.
On Saturday, police arrested 13 Occupy D.C. sympathizers who stormed the abandoned Franklin School to protest city plans to turn the former homeless shelter over to the private sector for development. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who has expressed support for Occupy D.C.’s priorities,condemned the sympathizers’ actions.
But on the same day, Occupy D.C. received a major boost from organized labor when the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO approved a resolution calling on unions to treat encampments like a picket line.
“Protest movements, like strike lines and organizing campaigns, do not have curfews and are not 9 to 5 activities,” the resolution states. “And in doing so, we recognize and will work to protect the right for occupiers to protest 24 hours a day, on-site, with proper protection, including food, medical supplies, water and tents.”
In the final hours of their march, the protesters said the key to the movement’s success will be continued outreach to people in small towns and cities, similar to those they passed through on the way to the District.
“The focus is just not about the metropolitan cities anymore,” said Bo Han, 29, who quit his job as a waiter in Atlanta to move to New York to participate in the protest. “There will be marches all across the country. . . . There are people who joined us for just one mile on the march.”
Eric Carter, 30, a native of Southeast Washington, also walked the entire route, leaving his job as a medic in New Orleans to go to New York.
Carter spent the past 11 days tending to other marchers’ feet, examining or bandaging as many as 10 pairs a day. He said he considers the march a success, regardless of what now transpires in the District. Although the marchers occasionally encountered “hostile turf” — where “get a job” was a common refrain — Carter said most people were “super nice.”
“I think people have been waiting for this movement,” Carter said. “For the first time, we can have a conversation that is not about how to fix the government, but about what kind of government we want to see.”
Staff writers Elizabeth Flock and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.