It was hard to keep straight exactly who was speaking for the 99 percent in Washington last week.
Was it the young, self-described anarchists who got arrested after tossing newspaper boxes into K Street to block traffic during a raucous demonstration Wednesday? Or was it a middle-aged jobless woman from Miami who traveled here in a chartered bus to lobby her senator?
The answer, of course, was both. But the differences were telling, and they highlighted the challenges facing the left-leaning spectrum of American politics as it tries to capitalize on the newfound energy of the Occupy movement.
No fewer than three liberal protest encampments were operating downtown from Monday to Friday. Two, at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, were part of the national Occupy movement. The third was set up temporarily on the Mall in front of the Smithsonian Castle by a national coalition of labor unions and liberal groups.
Each of the three had its own ideas about how to achieve social change. The different groups are cooperating a bit but are wary of one another.
Many Occupy activists worry that labor unions want to co-opt them into traditional electoral politics. One McPherson Square protester said there was a risk of becoming “drones for Obama.”
The established liberal groups love the commitment and enthusiasm of the more radical protesters. But they’re keeping some distance for fear of being discredited if the Occupy folks get in trouble with the law, as some did last week in the first major wave of arrests in the Washington demonstrations.
On the plus side, protesters at all three sites shared the same broad, admittedly fuzzy goals. They want to reduce corporate power over American politics and restructure the economy to help the poor and the middle class.
They’re also having some success. This fall’s burst of liberal, grass-roots activism has unquestionably helped to nudge the national political debate to the left, just as the tea party rebellion two years ago shifted it to the right. President Obama’s major speech in Kansas on Tuesday, focusing on the need to reduce income inequality, was a sign of the change.
Still, as events showed in Washington last week, the movement is woven of several diverse and, to some extent, clashing threads. For instance, the two Occupy camps at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza have developed quite distinct personalities since they were established in October.
Both activists and police described the McPherson camp as having less central organization and being more testy in its dealings with authorities than the one at Freedom Plaza.
Of more than 100 people arrested in Washington for civil disobedience last week, almost all of the ones encamped in the District were from McPherson Square, according to protesters and police. Most of the rest of those arrested had come in recently from out of town. It was by far the highest number of arrests in Washington since the protests began.
At McPherson, 31 activists were arrested last Sunday when they disobeyed U.S. Park Police orders to step aside and allow the dismantling of a partially built wooden shelter that had been put up without official permission.
“Some people said we have to do whatever the police said. That goes against every reason we’re out here,” said Benjamin Faure, 19, who was one of those arrested that day. He called himself a “synchro anarchist” or “collectivist.”
At Freedom Plaza, by contrast, organizers recently obtained Park Police permission to install three large, heated tents to help deal with cold weather.
“We don’t believe in getting arrested just for the sake of an arrest,” said Margaret Flowers, 49, a Baltimore County pediatrician. “We don’t see any reason to antagonize the police.”
Flowers is one of four longtime liberal advocates who started planning the Freedom Plaza occupation in April and continues to serve as one of its “lead activists.” The McPherson Square occupation sprang up spontaneously and prides itself on having minimal formal leadership.
The third camp, on the Mall, represented the establishment left. It was set up by a coalition that included the Service Employees International Union and MoveOn.org. It closed Friday after hosting about 2,500 activists and unemployed people from across the country who demonstrated and lobbied Congress for five days.
To keep some distance from the other groups, the gathering made a point of not using the “Occupy” label. It called itself “Take Back the Capitol.”
It boasted superior creature comforts, with large tents fit for a wedding reception. They had big-screen televisions and live bands. People didn’t sleep there, but at churches and hostels.
At the two Occupy camps, protesters huddled in pup tents and derided the Mall demonstration as a “Mock-upation.”
The differences among the groups were evident in the Wednesday march on K Street, where 62 people were arrested. Only a small number of those detained were officially part of Take Back the Capitol, which staged what it called a “very orderly” arrest of 11 members, including unemployed people and four ministers.
By contrast, Occupy activists blocked intersections with newspaper boxes, office furniture and other objects in a chaotic scene that drew criticism from Mayor Vince Gray. Some Take Back the Capitol supporters were critical afterward.
“The ‘Take Back the Capitol’ organizers had a plan that they executed very much in the style of the old civil rights movement,” writer-comedian Elon James White, who was one of the marchers, wrote in a blog post. “The Occupiers involved on Wednesday didn’t seem to understand that side. . . . They may want to take a cue from the organizers who have been doing this a lot longer.”
In any new popular movement, some internal tension and excessive behavior is inevitable. This one’s long-term success will depend in part on overcoming or at least managing the divisions that we saw here last week.