Occupy DC: ‘This is what democracy looks like’

At Occupy sites across the nation, a popular call-and-response chant goes like this: “Show us what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like!”

On Tuesday evening, as the sun went down on an unseasonably temperate afternoon, the demonstrators’ democracy looked like this:

At least 1,000 people congregated in the darkness on the west lawn of the Capitol building, boots stomping footprints in the mud. A line of about a hundred snaked around for a slice of Papa John’s pizza that ran out within minutes. They got loaves of white bread instead.

Young people with shirts saying “Occupy Knoxville,” “Occupy Portland” and “Occupy Delaware” waiting to start marching to the White House lawn at 6 p.m.

Some had protested before; some were in the District for the first time. All were hopeful that the protest in the District would go well because the Occupy movement here seemed to be thriving, despite a rat infestation and an abandoned child found inside a tent.

They were still bound together by a clear disgust against corporate greed and the same activist lingo, in which one calls for a “mic check,” when a single person wants those around him to echo his or her concerns.

“Mic check!” one man screamed around 6:15 p.m., concerned about what he saw at the Capitol. “There are guys on the roof! The police are scared of us.” The people around him duly repeated the message.

“Mic check,’’ another said immediately. “There are always guys on the roof. Welcome to DC.” The people giggled.

It was 6:15, but there was no marching. A somber guitarist crooned, “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out,’’ and asked everyone to sing along. A stand-up comedian told a joke that people should go to banks and start pooping their pants to show them what they think.

As he finished the joke, a man with a large American flag turned upside down chanted “March! March! March!”

And by 6:40 p.m., they were off.

“Show us what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like.”

The demonstrators’ version of democracy looked like a thick crowd that measured a block and a half long and spread across six lanes wide as they scaled up Constitution Avenue.

“It is so much easier to have a successful march here than it was in New York,’’ said Athena Soules, 32, who had been Occupying Wall Street. “The police here, they pretty much left us alone. And we were able to just march and we got better at it. We learned when to slow down. We learned how to stretch from one side of the street to the other.”

There were men and women holding signs against banks, Corporate America, corporate greed, labor laws, the unfairness of the District not having voting rights. There were college students and Vietnam vets, men in suits and ties, women dressed all in camouflage, at least four men dressed in orange jumpsuits saying “Innocent.” A few bikers trying to snake through the masses. City buses stood idly, unable to cut through the traffic. Well over 1,000 people were walking and one man was on a Segway.

Then, to the Supreme Court, where they flooded the steps and chanting, “Money is not free speech.” Then, to the front of a Newseum, where a man with long blond hair called for a “mic check” and read aloud the first amendment, which guaranteed free speech.

At 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW a man in pajamas climbed a traffic light.

“Show me what democracy looks like?” he yelled. “This is what democracy looks like.”

This version of democracy cheered as it hit the gates of the White House, ignoring the call of a random passerby who said, “Your movement is failing.” A group of them affixed a colorful array of paper hearts on the tips of the railing.

Then they briefly tremor as a plume of smoke raised into the sky.

“Tear gas!” someone screamed. “Clear the sidewalk.”

As the message echoed, it became clear that this wasn’t tear gas. It was a smoke bomb, an incident that law enforcement is still investigating.

The frenzy lasted less then a minute, before the demonstrators went back to chanting.

“Show us what democracy looks like?”

Then more chants in support of ending wars and taxing the rich, pleading for President Obama to come out of his home, even though he wasn’t there for the dinner. By 8:30 p.m., nearly two hours after leaving the Capitol, the crowd began to disperse.

Some went back to the Capitol, where there was more pizza and a woman strumming a folksy version of the national anthem. And they began to wonder what was next.

“I’m not sure looking at an end goal for this is the right question to ask,’’ said Nicholas Caleb, a 28-year-old attorney from Portland, Ore. “If we make our points known and nothing happens, then we haven’t made the system any worse than before. But in Portland, we are starting to make sort of practical steps -- we have formed a legislative agenda and we’re meeting with the candidates of mayor.

“Here, a lot of us have been talking about what works in other cities and figure out what we can use. We’re just starting.”

Read more on PostLocal.com:

Occupiers confront seats of power

Milloy: Occupy D.C.’s plan: Stay in the public’s face

Paths of mother, driver crossed before boy’s death

Six shot, three bitten, dog killed in D.C.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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