They’re out of work. They’re from out of town. And they’re fed up.
Many of those who “occupied” Freedom Plaza on Thursday said they had never been to a protest before but were inspired to come to downtown Washington by the Occupy Wall Street movement that began last month in New York and has spread to cities across the country.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” said Tina Strobel, an unemployed medical transcriptionist from Kansas who had driven 1,100 miles with her husband and teenage son for Thursday’s event. She sat in the grass, clutching a sign that read, “Lost my job, found an occupation.”
Strobel said she had lost faith in the country’s political system during the past two years, but “when I read about this, I thought, well maybe this will be a beginning.”
Hundreds opened sleeping bags and raised tents in the public plaza near the White House, vowing to stay indefinitely — or until their voices were heard. (They only have National Park Service permits through Sunday.)
First-timers like Strobel stood side by side with veteran antiwar and anti-poverty activists, chanting, singing and waving signs that said “Tax the rich.” They derided corporate greed, ineffective political leadership and the growing inequity between the rich and poor. Many carried signs that identified themselves as part of the “99 percent” — a dig at the 1 percent of American earners who take in a quarter of the country’s income.
The four-day “October 2011” event — “Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed!” — had been in the works since April, but organizers quickly teamed up with the Occupy movement — which has spread to cities across the United States since a small band of protesters took up residence in a park near Wall Street in New York on Sept. 17. Occupy D.C. protesters have been rallying daily along the K Street corridor — long a bastion for Washington lobbyists.
After Thursday’s rally, scores of protesters in a line stretching four city blocks paraded past the U.S. Treasury and the White House, chanting, “We got sold out,” and ringing cowbells and pounding drums. They ended up massing along H Street Northwest in front of the heavy carved door of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, chanting, “We want jobs! We want jobs!” They then unfurled a banner that read “Chamber of Corporate Horrors” and left a symbolic sheaf of job applications and resumes behind.
“People have been feeling they have no voice for so long. Now they are finding that voice, and it is really empowering,” said Margaret Flowers, 48, a Baltimore health-care advocate and organizer.
U.S. Park Police said the protests were peaceful.
In their Web manifesto, rally organizers spoke of transforming Freedom Plaza into “our Tahrir Square Cairo, our Madison, Wisconsin,” where they could “nonviolently” resist the “corporate machine” and ask that America’s resources be spent on human needs.
Organizers had three more days of activities planned, including another protest Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building against the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline planned to stretch from Canada to Texas.
Christopher Bueker, 25, a paraprofessional in the Cincinnati public school system, set up a tent in Freedom Plaza with three friends who had traveled to Washington for the event. He said he was happy that a protest movement that he likened to those in Europe and the Middle East had finally been sparked in the United States.
“We’re definitely influenced by movements happening all over the world,” he said. “This isn’t just happening in D.C. This is happening globally.”
Staff writer Jimm Phillips contributed to this report.