Take Back the Capitol: Lessons for OWS

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.

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.


Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.