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)

With a bright-yellow, 30-yard sign emblazoned with the movement’s name, they joined the purple and green Take Back the Capitol teams with a roar of cheers. Although not Occupy-affiliated, the protest organizers gladly shared the streets with the folks who have helped frame the debate.

Together, Occupy and the green and purple teams headed to K Street to take a big, unified stand against lobbyists. As everyone pushed down 16th Street, I was surprised yet again to see even more organized teams separated by color — a red and a brown. The teams had completed their specific strikes, and then all the colors of the rainbow hit K and 16th and shut down the intersection en masse.

“This is what democracy looks like!” they chanted. And there was unity. For about seven minutes.

The planned action by the organizations and activists was to protest at that intersection of K Street. This was not the planned action of the members of Occupy D.C. and Occupy Wall Street, however. They soon yelled for the Take Back the Capitol teams to help occupy yet another intersection a few blocks away.

They mic-checked Take Back the Capitol and called out to specific unions involved, begging them to extend this action down the street. “You have your own minds!” one woman yelled as the teams remained in the intersection as planned. The Occupiers seemed angry and annoyed that the massive crowd wouldn’t be massive the way they wanted it to be.

Then the police came. They surrounded the intersection, and the crowd herders quickly yelled for everyone to get back on the sidewalk. A few remained in the intersection and were arrested, as planned. The occupation of K Street by Take Back the Capitol was a planned action with a desired result. Soon after the arrests, the rest of the marchers came together to head back to the National Mall, where they had begun their protest.

This did not please some Occupiers.

“Where are you going?” one woman yelled in a horribly shrill voice. “You can’t just use us like that!” The Occupiers wanted to occupy more. They wanted to push the civil disobedience line as a whole. And they did — just without Take Back the Capitol. It was reported later in the day that the Occupiers lay down on K Street and did get arrested.

The Take Back the Capitol organizers had a plan that they executed very much in the style of the old civil rights movement. Once it was executed, they moved forward.

A couple of the organizers from the unions, which bused members in to be a part of the protest, specifically said that they did not want a bunch of their people to get arrested. They wanted to speak up and make a stand for what they believe in — but they didn’t want an arrest on their record and the possibility of costly travel to attend court dates in Washington.

The Occupiers involved on Wednesday didn’t seem to understand that side. I’m referring only to these specific members of the Occupy movement, because in a movement without top-down leaders, I won’t claim to say what its protesting philosophy is as a whole. But if various segments of the Occupy movement want to represent a more diverse group of people and understand their goals (as some in the movement already do), they may want to take a cue from the organizers who have been doing this a lot longer.

Elon James White is a writer-comedian and the host of the award-winning Web series This Week in Blackness and the Internet radio show Blacking It Up. Follow him on Twitter.

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