Quest for a better deal unites Washington area’s encampments

November 24, 2011

Not too far from Capitol Hill, there’s a city of tents populated by people who are willing to sleep on the cold, hard ground to further their cause.

This is Occupy Best Buy.

The most dedicated Black Friday deal-seekers began setting up camp at Fairfax County’s Fair Lakes Shopping Center on Wednesday morning, and within 24 hours a small hamlet of nylon tents had sprung up.

Second in line were newlyweds Brent Hart and Brenda Bonanno, who moved here from Tucson in September. A civilian defense contractor, he ships out to Afghanistan in less than three weeks. His bride hopes a new laptop — on sale at midnight for $299 — will help bridge the distance.

“Skype it up, that's what everyone has been saying,” said Bonanno. “But to Skype you need a computer.”

Twenty miles to the east, the inhabitants of another tent city woke up to sunshine after enduring days of drizzle. Occupy D.C. protesters emerged from their makeshift homes in McPherson Square, hung their clothes out to dry and geared up for the days — or weeks or months — ahead.

“I’ll be here until we win,” said one 24-year-old who declined to give his name.

In many ways, the Washington area’s Thanksgiving encampments couldn’t be more different. Shoppers are in search of mega-deals, after all, and protesters want revolution. But in the language of the Occupy movement, they’re all part of the 99 percent.

Kyle Finn, sixth in line at Best Buy, arrived at midnight Wednesday and spent the night in a $20 pup tent that was intended, apparently, for someone much shorter.

“I had to sleep diagonally,” he said.

He shivered through the night under a thin blanket for the chance to buy a flat-screen television at $300 less than list price. A senior majoring in graphic design at George Mason University, he’ll pay for the TV with earnings from his retail job at Pier 1 Imports.

Someday, he’d like to have his own design firm. But that seems far off, and other post-graduation job prospects are just as uncertain. He has some friends who are going to graduate school, others who are trying to outlast the weak economy by living with parents.

“I was told it’s supposed to get better in the next five years,” he said. “That’s a long time, though.”

Also thinking about his future Thursday was Phil Hoyle, a 23-year-old graduate of Towson University.

In March, he lost his job at an after-school program for kids. Then he worked at an auto shop, doing oil changes and odd jobs. He quit after two months, and in September, he stopped paying rent on his Baltimore apartment.

Now he sleeps in Occupy D.C.’s library tent, guarding its books. He’s a little tired of Occupy — the dozens of neighbors, the weather, the loud late-night revelry. But he can’t bring himself to leave.

“To be honest, I don’t quite know what I’m looking for,” he said. “All I know is I’m here, I’m fed and I’m sheltered. And that’s good enough for now.”

Urban tenters of every stripe confront certain challenges. Where to go to the bathroom? How to head off the inevitable, crushing boredom that comes with sitting around?

Misagh Owji, a 20-year-old Iranian immigrant, is also a five-year veteran of Black Friday camp-outs. He arrived at Fair Lakes this year prepared with a soccer ball and a slim metal case filled with poker chips — key tools for bonding with neighboring campers, he said.

“You find a lot of friends doing this,” he said. “It’s my own tradition that I like to do. It’s way funner than eating turkey.”

Curious onlookers were drawn to both crews of campers. In the District, tourists whipped out iPhones to capture photos of Occupiers’ signs and raggedy tents. In Fairfax, a steady stream of cars cruised the Best Buy parking lot, their passengers gawking.

Hart and Bonanno, the newlyweds in need of a laptop, turned their marathon wait into a family adventure. They prepared an entire Thanksgiving meal — roast turkey, green bean casserole and stuffing — to be eaten on paper plates outside the store.

Bonanno’s 6-year-old son entertained himself with a video game. The grown-ups lounged in camp chairs.

“I have friends who do this every year and I’m like, ‘That’s so stupid, you guys are losers,’ ” said Bonanno. “Here we are doing it, and it’s not bad.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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