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.