Message of anti-Wall Street protesters is getting through to average folks in D.C.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 6, 2011

The protesters are back.

I know. They never really leave the District. They’re part of the package tour: here’s the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the hotel-of-the-latest-sexual-scandal and a protest.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Washington protests — whether anti-globalization in 2000 or antiwar in 2005 or anti-Wall Street in 2011 — have acquired a pretty standard vibe.

They sound the same: the drums, the chants, the songs. They sort of look the same: the dreads, the slogan T-shirts, the distressed protest fashion. They even smell the same: Why always the incense?

And the pastiche of messages and causes is dizzying.

On Thursday afternoon in Freedom Plaza, I heard about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, health care, drones, a movement to impeach President Obama, D.C. statehood, the death penalty, small-business rights and a very cute sloth that lives in an endangered Bolivian rain forest (Preserve our Biodiversity!).

The protesters have danced and chanted and put on some excellent street theater in these first few days of the Occupy D.C. movement.

They rode the Metro this week dressed as the Monopoly man, complete with clinking champagne glasses and monocles, pretending to be that 1 percent of people who monopolize 40 percent of global wealth.

You’d figure that’s not going to win over the hometown crowd. For the most part, we’re a place of khaki pants, sensible shoes and ID badges hanging around our necks. Generally, not a lot of drums and incense.

But guess what?

“I feel like they’d see me as an outcast, as a suit,” said a guy in a suit watching the Freedom Plaza protests from the sidelines during his lunch hour. “But I’m more them,” he said, pointing at a circle of drummers ululating in the sun, “than I am a suit.”

A lot of anger exists out there in the middle class, and the protesters have one powerful message that plenty of folks can relate to.

The main theme of the Occupy Wall Street folks, who have been camped out in Manhattan’s financial district for three weeks, is aimed at decrying greed, fat-cat bankers and an economy that bails out corporations but not ailing Americans.

They are angry that banks are laying folks off, raising bank fees and denying loans to the very Americans who bailed them out.

“U.S. is not broke — Just broken priorities,” one protester’s sign read.

And that’s a sentiment that plenty of Americans can latch on to.

“I never thought America could be like this, in so much trouble. So much changed in 10 years,” said Abye Tegen, 33, a cabdriver who emigrated from Ethiopia 16 years ago.

He remembers the protesters who occupied downtown Washington outside the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in 2000.

Back then, the folks on the sidelines — the police officers, the cabbies, the shop owners and the folks who suit up to trudge to the office every day — didn’t think too much of the protesters.

“Everyone was mad at them for ruining business,” the cabbie said. “That’s what I remember.”

But today, he and a few other cabbies parked and watched, nodding in support.

Every Washingtonian I talked to who stepped out to watch the action in Freedom Plaza — from the security guards to the suits — felt a solidarity with the message.

“The banks. The banks are taking all of us for a ride,” one security guard told me. “And they’re in the right place now, because Congress is behind that.”

He’s spot-on about that. It’s a banker’s job to make money. But here in the District, it’s the job of our representatives to protect the people, not just the corporations.

A city tow-truck driver who had a protester’s red van with New York plates racked up because it was in a no-parking zone won a round of applause when he put the car back down after the driver returned, begging him not to tow it.

“I don’t get that every day,” he said. “These folks have a point, man. There’s a lot of greed out there that’s ruining it for the rest of us.”

Hey, even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is hearing that one.

Bernanke told the Joint Economic Committee Tuesday that he’s catching the protesters’ drift.

“I would just say very generally, I think people are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what’s happening,” Bernanke said. “They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them.”

The suit who first looked longingly outside his office window, then came down for a closer look, said he’d join in if it all weren’t so — so Renaissance-Fair-meets-Phish show.

“If they could capture the middle class with a real, solid, untainted message about change — hey, that would work,” he said. “We’re all struggling, feeling left behind, trying to make it.”

Amen, suit.

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