Small protests aren’t rare here, in view of the White House. It’s a better view than the one on the south side, by all the visible monuments. Here the executive mansion is visible over workaday Washington, over a less manicured park, people walking their dogs and jogging and politely whispering that they have something you might want to buy. Police are never far away, not here in the heavily touristed headquarters of the world’s last and rapidly declining superpower. Our nation’s capital.
Pure dumb hope, that’s why I’m walking through Lafayette Park on a Thursday night, just off a plane, hoping for revolution and ready for disappointment. Protests began here, just this week. Protests on the south side of the square, this pleasant green with tall trees blocking whatever might be happening.
There’s the bench where I used to smoke cigarettes through my lunch breaks, while working at UPI’s world headquarters around the corner on H Street. It was such an ugly and soulless 1970s halfhearted-brutalist building that I always slowed down while passing the neighboring Dolley Madison House, stately and tasteful and filled with the ghosts of the slaves who toiled there. The Saudis owned the wire service when I was hired and the Moonies owned it when I quit, 18 years ago. Bill and Hillary Clinton were in the White House at the time, year seven of their curious reign. Sometimes I’d face the mansion and blow smoke towards it and wonder how much worse it would get, before the dam breaks. Before a revolution I welcome in theory and can just barely imagine in reality.
Well, reality is for suckers. Or realists. And I’d rather avoid them both. The shadowy park and its tall trees blocks any hint of action ahead. And like walking up to Zuccotti Park for the first time, in Lower Manhattan seven years ago, it is underwhelming. A handful of people, maybe? A few voices. Then I get around the last big trees and it opens up, this dark blocked-off stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. The music starts again; the black and white guys taking care of the huge battery-powered speaker in a backpack have made whatever adjustments, and the protest music blasts again. Sixties oldies, hip hop anthems, Neil Diamond’s “America” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Power To the People.”
The people are dancing, especially the little ones. You know the people you see at protests: raggedy hippies and the stern representatives of the various causes. There are a few of them here, which is fine. You don’t have a progressive protest without them. But they are outnumbered by the humans you saw at the Women’s March: millennials on their way back from dinner, moms in hijabs and corporate suits, dads in shorts and baseball caps, tourist families, political staffers still in their work clothes, and a handful of young Democratic Socialist types with signs and amplified energy. People are friendly, offering to take pictures for those suffering to make selfies in the dark. A group of 20-something women hands out home-made sandwiches. Free sandwiches.
Something about this humble and barely-heard feeding of the multitudes makes me take it all seriously. The signs you expect. The tourists and curious you hope to see, hope to convert. The tireless protesters with their laminated signs and leaflets you appreciate, because they announce to the distant gaze that yes this is a protest and not just a group of people waiting for tour buses.
How many people? A modest number, especially with it being 90 minutes past the nightly event’s beginning. I count about 300 until I’m counting people I’ve already acknowledged. From the looks of the pictures on social media, there were maybe a thousand earlier in the evening. But these things are not measured in masses, not at these early stages.
The protests were called for by a couple of people who work in Democratic party politics, but as always the people who call for the protest are rarely the ones who make it happen.
Adbusters, the anti-capitalist magazine that had few subscribers anywhere—especially in the newsrooms of New York and Washington—had called for the occupation of Wall Street to begin on September 17, 2011. The call was little noticed when it appeared in February of that year. But all through that third summer of the Great Recession, the signs and symbols piled up, not randomly but because of the heavy sense that something had to give: It is painful to remember today just how much hope pro-democracy and human-rights movements had in social media just seven years ago. Dictatorships had fallen across the Arab world, because of Twitter!
There was a “Bloombergville” encampment in July of 2011, named for the Hooverville shantytowns of the 1930s. Then some artists stripped off their clothes before the Wall Street bull statue, which shocked exactly no-one. And the online collective Anonymous took sudden American form as polite suburban mobs wearing plastic Guy Fawkes face masks—masked and anonymous avengers, inspired not so much by the 1605 Gunpowder Plot as from a clumsy 2006 movie adaptation of the comic book V For Vendetta.
The economic recovery had not been much of a recovery. The gains had not only gone to the rich, as usual, but almost exclusively to the older rich and already well-off, as college students from the upper-middle classes realized they would be student-debt slaves for most of their working lives, and the working class realized they would never own the comfortable homes and bought-new pickups their parents enjoyed. Yet violent crime continued to fall—except for mass shootings, which made up the difference in young corpses—and many wondered aloud if the ever-shrinking horizons of Western youth were not noticed so much anymore by the victims. Maybe because of video games? Widespread prescription of depression and anxiety drugs? Who knew. But it made for a certain confidence, in the very rich especially. Not until late September of 2011 did the conspicuously wealthy start hiding. Quiet entrances were constructed at expensive apartment towers. Even the driver drop-off points moved inside, in the new luxury towers, the better to hide high-net-worth people during the few moments between doorman lobby and chauffeured ride. Since Occupy, roundly criticized as a failure, the very rich have become like the very rich in a hundred other corrupt and unequal nations, hiding behind walls and lines of grim-faced security staff. And what they fear most is making it to the private jet when it all breaks down, when the troubles begin for real. No compound in New Zealand provides safety if you can’t get out of a burning America.
Occupy led directly to the Democratic Socialists of America, to Bernie Sanders nearly winning the 2016 Democratic primary and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her way to the House of Representatives in 2018. It’s a direct line from #Occupy to the sudden political viability of Medicare For All, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, child care and college tuition paid not through debt and struggle but the fair taxation of multi-billionaires who publicly moan about how they have too much money to spend. Well, we’ll take care of that, pretty soon now.
This Lafayette Square ongoing protest, like any post-Occupy Wall Street action fighting to be loud enough to get national attention, is mostly ignored right now. Barely a word in the Washington Post, ignored by cable news even as their DC bureau reporters sit idly in newsrooms, reposting the president’s insane and idiotic tweets.
The nightly protests behind the White House will hopefully have more to do with the Velvet Revolution in Prague, when many thousands of citizens gathered nightly to shake their keys at the Soviet-controlled totalitarian government, or the “Candlelight Revolution” in Seoul last year. In both cases, the governments fell. The Moscow-controlled Czechoslovak government collapsed. The deeply corrupt South Korean president Park Geun-hye was impeached and convicted and now lives in a prison.
Well we can hope, and we can show up, and we can hope more show up with us. We can be heartbroken and disgusted and always making sure our passports are up-to-date and maybe checking in with those distant relatives or former co-workers living in stable countries, and still hold out some kind of wild romantic hope that even America is not too broken to run the absolute worst bunch of idiot traitorous criminals out of the White House, out of power, out of Washington, out of the country if we can manage it.
Tonight’s festivities start at 7:30 p.m. It’s safe and friendly, the local cops are polite and mostly hate Trump and his racist goons as much as you do. Why not come on down? It’s Friday. Make a date night out of it. You can even get a free sandwich if you like.