Saturday, February 4, 2012

Occupy DC

The following is intended to be written from as neutral a perspective as I can offer.  While I do not affiliate with the Occupy movement I do support their right to assemble in protest, even if I may not necessarily share many of their ideals.  I have some police background and similarly try to appreciate their situation, as well.


An initial kerfuffle

I arrived to a bit of commotion as protesters smacked sticks upon the pavement and police rushed out of their lines with shields up...

The US Park Police arrived to enforce the No Camping regulation as they had been directed by a Congressional hearing to begin more stringent enforcement.  After an initial check days earlier, their arrival today reportedly caught many protesters off-guard.

Police searched each tent for sleeping paraphernalia (I'm quite proud of this term) as well as equipment related to cooking (including opened food).  If any such objects were found: the entire tent and all its contents were confiscated as evidence.  Clean tents were left standing.

The searches commenced part-by-part in each of the segments of McPherson Square, with protesters scrambling about the open sections cleaning out things... though some proudly displayed their prohibited wares, including one tent with an admittedly comfortable bed inside.

As police closed a new section the protesters moved to an adjacent section.  In general there had been little confrontation between either side, other than a few instigators calling out some more pointed remarks & a generally high degree of profanity being tossed toward the police.

Chasing rats

Most tents were pretty typical of any encampment, but I recall one tent in particular... it had been constructed with a tarp over cardboard & plywood walls, with cardboard laid down upon pallets to form the flooring.  Within those pallets, however, were dozens of rats... a sheltered home, warmed by bodies above, with plenty of food around: not exactly a surprise; but it sent both cleaning crews and nearby observers scattering as each darted about.  One tweeter opted to point out highly-personal bodily truths in response to his disagreement with my rat observation.  I'm not sure how one could doubt the presence of rats... I mean, firstly: it's a city; we have those.  Second: it had a downright perfect new home.

One other tent -- one of the first ones to be cleaned out -- included a gallon jug of urine and a vomit-soaked washcloth.  I was fortunate enough to be downwind... oof.

But both of those incidents were admittedly in the minority, as even tents that were cleaned out didn't appear to be any more dirtier than what I'd accrue if spending a weekend in the mountains.  And considering many of these had been in place for months: I don't intend my "dirty jibes" as any insult; overall most of the encampment has been rather well-kept, all things considered.

U-StreamTo the credit of police, there were quite a number of occasions where they returned property from across the barriers.  There was a large painted plywood sign, a guitar, a briefcase, and some tentpoles- and that was only what I witnessed.  From chatting with many of the officers most of this time: most were in good spirits and very pleasant to talk to.  They also let in Occupy DC's livestreamer as well as the closest thing I'd say they have to a leader, both granted seemingly unrestricted (or at least greatly flexible) access behind police lines.

I tried to take some time to humanise both the protesters... well as the police, which I felt even more important to capture.  I'm not without my critiques of their overall response this evening & with the actions of a couple select officers, but it's also important to remember that as individuals: these men and women are people who would drop everything and give themselves to rush to your defense, assistance, and rescue regardless of who you are or in what circumstances you would find yourself in.  And these are people with families, just earning paychecks, who faced this day not knowing what course it may take.

...Even the staff cleaning out the tents, who had perhaps the least-inspiring job of all:

The big standoff came when the Park Police moved to close the last section at the northwest of the park.  This is home to the previously-closed food tent, medical tent, and -- most dear to the protesters -- their main library.  I am not 100% sure how it all began nor would I trust any account from either side, but somehow tensions flared, people got thrown down, riot shields moved in, clubs out, and basically all those sort of fun things...

The only thing I could hear over the pandemonium was a young girl screaming at the top of her lungs.  All other sounds faded into a constant din of background noise.  My hearing is not the best, so with my eyes planted into my camera lens: I hadn't taken heed of the police officers surrounding me.  When I pulled my head back momentarily to look at the last photo I'd just taken, out of the corner of my eye I recognised the light blue of police helmets on all sides; and a split-second later the world took a dizzying tumble about me.

I had been standing on a bench, and moments later I was behind the bench... a police officer pushed me over the back of it; I'm not entirely sure in what direction I landed other than that my brain took a moment to collect itself and come to terms with my newfound respect for the force of gravity.

As I joined into the crowd being slowly pushed back: flare-ups grew all about as protesters and police clashed; the group in general being pushed ever-gradually backwards toward the exit, though for many it wasn't entirely clear where the exit was: police and barricades seemed to be in all directions.

At the exit some protesters made their final stand, including taking down a barrier that I just happened to be standing by.  I'm pretty sure I let loose a rather loud profanity in the video I was shooting at the time, as the attaching part of the fence went straight into my leg.  This gave me a rather nice hobble the rest of the evening.  As the battle ensued about this barrier I took an unexpected club to the chest -- yet again I suppose I hadn't heard a police order directing to me to move.

Things quieted down for awhile after that...

Cordial chatting, seconds before things flaredAt one point I moved in closer to where several protesters were chatting with some police officers.  The conversation seemed relatively cordial, but I must have missed something that was said which, I suspect, led to something being thrown, as in a split-second the relative calm erupted into shields moving on all sides of me and horses surrounding my position -- police moved in on one of those protesters for reasons I had not been able to discern. [I've since gathered that this may have been the alleged brick-throwing incident]

Once again my limited hearing got the best of me, as all the sounds merged into one and my attention fixated on my camera & getting good photos.  But just as well, as with the immediate appearance of mounted officers on all sides of me: I decided it best to stay in place and let officers personally direct me out of there.

At once I had an officer on my left come to escort me away from my position, pushing me rightward; and at the same time as an officer to my right was escorting someone the exact opposite direction -- causing us both to lightly collide... I quickly stated that I'm being sent right and left simultaneously, and the officers quickly sent us both to the right... and thankfully the officer with me immediately listened when I was visibly jumping on one leg and announced "I'm slow".  He heeded this and slowed down his escort of me to the other side of the police line.

After that, things quieted down right up until I departed.  I took some time to capture the sense of the shield wall, capturing both its physical presence as well as the emotions of those holding it together:

Some time later the protesters organised into a general assembly, to which I eventually decided that things were unlikely to flare up to such a degree again; so I took my leave and went home to begin tending to photos and video.  It was only after I sat that I came to find tally nice bruises on my left leg and right shoulder (I have no idea where the shoulder one came from... I guess when I went over the bench).  My right leg hurts, too, but that's solely a result of putting all my weight on it for several hours.  All-in-all an interesting night.