Mark Parker had long called McPherson Square home by the time the Occupy D.C. movement settled there in 2011. The homeless man with the unruly beard and squinty-eyed grin welcomed the activists as they created a makeshift settlement of low-slung, colorful tarp tents in the park.
It became his community: He served on committees, ate meals with the occupiers and talked politics and solutions.
But when the Occupy movement ended, the activists left McPherson Square and went back to their homes. Parker remained, living in the park and begging for money.
“He was a cranky man, but he had a lot of important views,” said John Zangas, a local resident active in Occupy D.C. “When Occupy died, a lot of his spirit and energy died in him because that was a promise to him that things would change.”
Parker, known as “Bear” to his friends, was found dead on a bench in McPherson Square on Aug. 14 at the age of 51. The D.C. medical examiner’s office said he died of heart failure.
In the nearly two months since he died, no one has claimed his body. Parker’s friends from Occupy, who learned about his death a couple weeks ago, have been unable to track down relatives.
The group has raised enough money online — more than $1,400 — to ensure that Parker is not laid to rest in an unmarked grave, and is hosting a celebration of Parker’s life on Oct. 31 at the Luther Place Memorial Church downtown.
“Together, we made sure Mark Parker departs life with dignity — not dumped in an unmarked grave where no one would remember his name,” a message on an Indiegogo campaign read after the group raised enough money for a grave. “Bear didn’t die alone and forgotten.”
Parker had a number of run-ins with the law throughout his life and was known by many in the area for his often brash comments to passersby while he was panhandling. He acknowledged in a video interview with Occupy activists that he was often impatient with people and did what was needed to survive.
Still, Parker’s past was a mystery to even those who knew him. Zangas recalls Parker as a gifted storyteller, always embellishing the details, but never failing to entertain those around him. One day Parker would tell of his past in the military, another day it would be his time as a police officer. Zangas said it was hard to determine what was true, but that didn’t really matter to those who encountered him in D.C.
“Even though he had some very cranky days, you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. He was a survivor,” said Zangas. “For me it was just the colorfulness of Bear. He was a very colorful man.”
In cities across the country, the Occupy movement fought against corporate greed and demanded more economic equality between the top 1 percent of the country’s income earners and the other 99 percent. They lived in the egalitarian way they wanted society to be modeled on: Their encampment in McPherson Square eschewed formal leadership and provided free meals and tents for anyone who wanted to participate.
In D.C., addressing this inequality takes many forms. Homelessness is one of the biggest issues plaguing the District, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has pledged to end chronic family homelessness by 2017.
“Usually it’s survival for me. I can’t put up with B.S. from people otherwise they are going to walk all over me,” Parker said in the 2011 interview when asked how the Occupy movement affected him. “But here I’ve been able to relax a bit, kick back, have a cup of coffee, talk with some friends. And if this is what the new America is going to be like, I swear to God, I’m all for it. Let’s go. Let’s get it on.”
The celebration of Mark “Bear” Parker’s life is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Oct. 31 at Luther Place Memorial Church, 1266 Vermont Ave NW.