Time was when David Koch could bring his Americans for Prosperity Foundation convention to our nation's capital, and conventioneers could feel pretty secure in the notion that Washington, D.C., was theirs for the taking. No longer.
The triumphant glow of hagiography that usually marks the convention's annual Ronald Reagan tribute dinner Friday night gave way to the heat of confrontation with the Occupy D.C. movement. Apparently, the AFP Foundation was prepared for shenanigans, as there seemed to be a readily available cadre of Metropolitan Police throughout the Walter E. Washington Convention Center where the event took place, a sprawling complex of glass and stone that takes up a full city block.
As the dinner began, one group of demonstrators convened outdoors for a peaceful film festival featuring a series of short documentaries about the Koch brothers, the billionaire executives of Koch Industries, the conglomerate founded by their father, Fred, who was also a founding member of the John Birch Society. (AlterNet's Rania Khalek has a report on that event here.)
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But others, from the Occupy D.C. and Occupy K Street movements, were more aggressive, shutting down streets around the convention center, and holding their ground at intersections with the forbearance of the police.
But not all the Occupiers were out in the cold. Hijinks began as the Tea Partiers picked at their salads during a speech by Andrew Napolitano, the retired federal judge who is now a talker on Fox News Channel. A young white man began shouting — I couldn't quite hear what he said — and was poised to unfurl a banner when he was grabbed by police, escorted from the hall.
“God bless the First Amendment,” Napolitano said, as the crowd jeered the young man as he was pulled from the hall. “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I followed the cops and their quarry out of the hall, watching as the officers pressed the protester to the floor just outside the entrance to the ballroom.
As police went through his pockets, he kept repeating, “I did not consent to this search. I am not resisting. But I did not consent to this search.” He said his phone and his wallet were the only things he cared about being taken from him. After the cops were satisfied that he had nothing worth confiscating on his person, the wallet and phone and all his effects were returned to him. When a cop handed back his conference pass, an AFPF staff person said, “Officer, you need to take his credentials away from him.” The officer obliged, and handed the pass to the staffer. Then he and another cop took the protester by the arms and down an escalator. I tailed after them and got his name: Ricky Lehner, from Florida.
I returned to the hall for the rest of Napolitano's speech, and afterward exited the ballroom to head toward the ladies room. But once outside the banquet hall, I saw a small cluster of people facing one of the giant glass panes at the front of the building. Among them was a very tall man. It was David Koch, surveying the hundreds of protesters who had gathered outside the building.
Soon protesters were at the entrance to the building chanting and holding signs. Later reports said they had surrounded every entrance to the building.
Back in the hall. AFP Foundation Executive Vice President Tracy Henke introduced David Koch to the crowd, where he received a standing ovation. Along with the other dignitaries present from the AFP Foundation board, she also got a warm round of applause for her shout-out to Art Pope, chairman of the foundation's sibling organization, simply known as Americans For Prosperity. Pope is the North Carolina political powerhouse who is behind the attempts to re-segregate the public schools of Wake County.
Then Henke warned the audience that if they left the building during the program, they would not be able to return, because of the Occupiers.
“We are so incredibly successful at what we do,” she said, “[that] there are 500 protesters that have set up outside.” She then directed the audience to look at the video giant video screens used to magnify the speakers. Photos flashed of the view of the protesters that David Koch took in from the south-facing window from which he had looked out at the crowd. “That's success,” she added. “That's prosperity.”
Before the program concluded, Phil Kerpen, the foundation's vice president for policy, would, spliced into a rant about how President Barack Obama is, through regulation, usurping the powers of the Congress, make a complaint about the left's “racial grievance groups.”
Dinesh D'Souza was the evening's big-ticket speaker. Before he launched into his shopworn theory about how Obama is redistributing America's wealth to “third world nations” in an effort to vindicate his father's anti-colonial activism, D'Souza noted that one wonderful thing about America: that an American can belong to any racial group, and be born to parents of any nation.
Dessert was not served at the dinner; guests were herded instead into a hallway for D'Souza's book signing, where they could pick up some cookies, petits fours and coffee along the way. As the Tea Partiers mingled, plucking sugary treats from white porcelain trays, a young, brown-skinned woman stood on a chair. “This is a message from the 99 percent,” she yelled. The crowd began to boo.
“We are not Democrats,” she said. “We are not Republicans. We are you.”
But the “We are you” part was drowned out by the chants of a group of young white people: “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” they roared — until an AFPF staff member told them to stop.
The woman was escorted from the premises. Her name is Rooj Alwazar; she's an American of Middle Eastern descent. I spoke to her later, outside the building. She said she felt the chants of the young people who surrounded her had something to do with he appearance. “Didn't that guy just say that anybody can be an American?” she asked, referring to D'Souza's remarks. “Obviously, that's not true.”
After the dessert incident, I packed up my notebook and recorder, ready to call it a night. But as I made my way to exit the one door the police directed me to, protesters sat down on the ground, with their backs against the door.
I made my way out the center doors instead, only to be encircled by a human chain of chanting people who were determined not to let me pass. I talked a young woman at one end of the chain into letting me by. “We are the 99 percent,” they chanted. But somehow they missed the point that most of the people in that hall are also part of the 99 percent.
It was a stupid and threatening move on the part of protesters. It's one thing to cause people to have to take a detour because your protest is inconvenient to them; it's quite another to trap people in a building. I don't like having my rights violated by anybody, especially by people with whose cause I'm sympathetic. And from a strategic point of view, this is hardly a way to win hearts and minds.
A standoff of sorts ensued, with police calling in reinforcements — still small in number, compared to the protesters. When the protesters refused to budge and the cops directed the exiting Tea Partiers down a long wheelchair ramp that runs across part of the building, some protesters scurried to block their path, as well. I saw one scuffle ensue between an older conference-goer and a younger protester.
Then came word that a protester had been hit by a car at a different entrance. TheWashington Post's Tim Craig reported that two people had been injured when, according to another protester, a car plowed into a group of 99-percenters who were blocking an intersection at the rear of the convention center. UPDATE: The total number of people struck is three, apparently in two incidents involving the same driver, who was not charged.
For all the tension, it was managed with a minimal number of police — no riot gear, no pepper spray.
UPDATE: Protesters' accounts about the incident with the car differ substantially with those of police. Protesters dispute police assertions that demonstrators jumped in front of the car. Protester Heidi Sippel, who was among those struck,told the Washington Post that police refused to take her statement. The driver was let go without citation, but Sippel said she received two police citations.
UPDATE: Video from Occupy DC of Sippel and her son recounting how they were struck and the police response: