Occupy DC at McPherson Square: The tent village at night

October 21, 2011

It’s 6 p.m. and raining, and a wet Washington rush-hour crowd moves neatly around the mishmashed tarp-and-tent village in McPherson Square.

Day 19 of the Occupy DC demonstration is turning into night. The park, which in daylight has been teeming with people shouting and waving signs, is quieter now. The pulse of the headless Occupy DC movement is slower; the conversation is less about strategy and more about what’s for dinner.

A night in the tent-dotted park unfolds:

6:30 p.m.

The weather is not kind. The wind licks at the makeshift homes — olive green and orange mushrooms that have sprung up on the park’s turf — and drizzling rain keeps demonstrators from their favorite evening activities: guitar circles (the night before, they sang along to Sublime’s “What I Got”), committee meetings and hoola-hooping.

While others meet at a nearby church for their daily general assembly meeting, remaining villagers mill about the park in donated blue ponchos that have “Transport Workers Union” inscribed on the backs in white lettering. “Where are all the hot girls?” someone asks near the information tent.

7 p.m.

Allura Rayford, a curly-haired 18-year-old who lives with her dad in Mount Rainier, moved to the park a few days ago. She’s one of the ponchoed wanderers. Rayford rattles off a list of job applications she has filled out recently — retail, restaurants, grocery stores — and says she’s open to any type of employment. In the meantime, she’s enjoying the vibes.

When asked why she’s there, she pauses, then says, “We are the 99 percent.”

8 p.m.

The center of life in this village is the food tent. James “J.C.” Cullen, a kind-faced 29-year-old from Greenbelt with plugs in his ears, is regarded as the kitchen keep. But like many people at the park, he shuns the implication of leadership.

“There’s not really anyone in charge, but I’ve been here a long time, so people sort of look for me,” said Cullen, who wears a T-shirt with the message “It’s not a phase.”

He calls this “the people’s tent,” where anyone can line up to receive one of about 1,500 meals served each day. Dinner tonight is vegetable-noodle soup donated by a local school, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an assortment of chips and crackers.

Volunteers of all sorts drop in to help fill bowls, donate grease-stained bags of Five Guys fries or to just find someone to talk to.

When the gas in the generator runs out and the floodlights in the tent go dark, a man stopping by to chat suddenly snaps a green glow stick to life and hands it to Cullen. “We used to use these all the time in the war,” he says.

The kitchen runs on hot plates and donated food, water and ice from supporters. Cullen says the kitchen and finance committees accept anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000 per day in cash donations; tonight, some of it will go to a $100 gas card to bring that generator back to life.

9 p.m.

The rain stops for a moment. Rayford sheds the poncho to reveal short denim cutoffs, a tight black hoodie and Doc Martens with a Human Rights Campaign sticker on her left heel. Looking like she’s dressed for a night out on U Street — where she says she lived with her dad until last year — she hurries off to “discuss more stuff.”

10 p.m.

Ellie Milne enjoys the new medical tent, donated by National Nurses United.

“I get choked up because it used to just be a box of Band-Aids,” says the 23-year-old Rockville resident, who started volunteering night shifts two weeks ago after her full-time nannying job. It’s a slow night — there are only coughs to be quelled and minor cuts to be treated. What she’s really worried about is the year’s first cold snap.

“Hypothermia,” says Milne, who took a “street medic” course from a volunteer organization. “That’s our biggest fear right now.”

She departs for the Metro ride home at 11 p.m.

Midnight

The rain slows to a drizzle and finally stops, and so does the flow of people passing by. Some campers who’ve been hanging out together all night — including the information tent attendant and the man with an “Arrest Rumsfield” shirt — are chatting in the park. The glow of cigarettes stands out from the darkened “comfort area” tent, where people go to get blankets and pillows. Next door, Cullen throws a black tarp over the front of the blue food tent, closing it for the night. After hours of serving food to others, still he stays near, too tired to move, too wired to sleep.

Cullen has been hanging out at McPherson Square since Oct. 3. He said he initially showed up because he wasn’t ready to go to bed when the protesters at his original destination, Freedom Plaza, were climbing into their blankets. Camping in the park and kitchen work feel natural to him, he said; his employment background has been in social work and in restaurants. But there hasn’t been much of either since he last worked in Philadelphia a year ago.

Cullen says that he came to Occupy DC because it had to be done and that the group will do whatever it takes. “It” and the “what” take him a moment to articulate; he knows he wants to build community, and he knows he needs more people to do it.

“It’s showing people outside of here that we can get together and do something,” Cullen said. “Personally, I feel like the 99 percent is a good message.”

1 a.m.

Restless campers cluster around Cullen, requesting access to overnight food tucked in the depths of the tent. He tells them to eat an apple, to go back to bed, to wait until morning. But he relents a moment later, returning from the tent with a bowl full of morale-boosting Lifesavers.

Cullen sleeps in a donated brand-name tent he shares with others if they need the space and if they’re proven trustworthy. (Things do go missing; someone walked away with an entire tent while the group was away on a morning march.) Since he arrived, Cullen has spent only two nights away — once to see his girlfriend in Silver Spring, and the other because he had Redskins tickets. Once he’s asleep, he won’t be up until late morning — someone else will handle breakfast.

2:30 a.m.

Washington’s insanely loud nightclub crowd begins spilling onto nearby streets. The few people awake in the park brace for confrontations from mouthy clubgoers, but the drama stays across the street.

It’s a coincidence, but it seems like a cue.

As police cars and an ambulance squawk away to break up what the cops say is a standard brawl, masked Occupy DC protesters scale the statue of Gen. James McPherson undetected. They dress him in an American flag and hang a single-word sign around his neck: “Occupied.”

When it’s clear the cops are distracted, the snickering masked men scale the statue a second time, snapping the movement’s symbolic mask on the face of the man who once appeared on $2 bills — a 1 percenter, indeed.

“That’ll go viral,” one of the protesters says as the others snap photos. The sky, reflecting the halogen glow of park light, appears cloudy red.

4 a.m.

The street sounds dull to white noise. Sleeping in a tent here is possible, even comfortable. It brings with it the fleeting, body-warmth comfort of camping — even while the last person awake in the tent city walks around in circles and rages loudly to himself.

6 a.m.

A new soundtrack emerges outside McPherson Square: brakes squeaking, joggers’ footsteps. Soon, the sky will change from gray-red to slate-blue and bring another blustery day, a tap on the shoulder that winter’s on its way.

The only noise inside the park is the tent zippers clinking as the wind blows harder. Soon, there will be work to do — flash mobs, demonstrations, the endless waving of signs bearing a hundred messages. But for now, another rush hour begins without Occupy DC.

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