Take Back the Capitol: Lessons for OWS

After witnessing the D.C. march, a writer explains why the Occupy movement could learn from protesting pros.

Chaos on K Street (Elon James White)
Chaos on K Street (Elon James White)

“What are they yelling?”

As I stood across the street from the first stop on the Take Back the Capitol march yesterday, away from the throng of activists, organizers and Occupiers from across the country, I watched as regular non-protesting people reacted, sometimes in confusion. Many of them looked incredulously upon the chanting crowd standing in front of the Warner Building in Washington, D.C.

The crowd, carrying green signs with messages like “Justice” and “We Are the 99%,” swarmed the corner of E Street and 12th. Soon five police cars arrived, and the scene was exactly what you’d expect from the whole Occupy Wall Street thing.

But this wasn’t Occupy.

The Take Back the Capitol event, organized by union members and activists from across the nation, kicked off on Monday, Dec. 5, with the goal of reminding “Congress that they represent all Americans, not just the 1 percent.” By Tuesday it had gone directly to the Capitol, staging sit-ins and demanding to speak to members of Congress to pressure them into passing the American Jobs Act.

Wednesday was the next day of action; thousands of protesters who had descended on D.C. took the fight to the lobbyists on the infamous K Street. The crowd marched through a continuous downpour and was surrounded by a heavy police presence. The protesters had a clear goal: to be heard over the million-dollar lobbyists who apparently have Congress’ ear.

There were constant screams of “Are you with us?!” by folks who had been designated the herders of the massive group of protesters. With their orange and yellow vests, they maintained an organized chaos. Although there was a mass of protesters, the herders instructed them to move from the street to the sidewalk and back again — in order to keep space open for pedestrians to pass. “Create a path!” they yelled.

The ever-polite demonstrators pushed on to their next destination — a Wells Fargo branch — while continuing to chant populist messages like “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” It clicked in my head that I was looking at a very Occupy-esque crowd, but based on the pictures on TV and the Occupy protests that I had attended, the major difference was the immense presence of people of color.

Perhaps because of the wide-ranging group of organizers involved with this protest and the goal-oriented aspect of the week’s missions, it seemed to draw the crowd that the Occupy movement has been criticized for not representing. This protest was multicolored. This protest was a true cross section of America, down to the hippie-esque guy with a sign reading, “I am the 1% … of Americans who grow their own food, have a compost heap and proudly works part-time.”

As I took note of the diversity in the crowd, I realized that it was not the only group demonstrating. “Are there more protests?” I wondered, as I saw another group around the corner protesting Verizon.

What I didn’t realize was that there were, in fact, multiple Take Back the Capitol teams spread across D.C. The folks I was following were part of the “green team.” This new team was purple — same signs but in different colors, in order to coordinate strikes at the proper targets. As soon as those two groups merged, another group descended upon us.

It was Occupy Wall Street.