Occupy DC: Empowering the 99 Percent

In the front section of The Washington Post, Dr. King's legacy is saluted in ads for Macy's and HSBC. Readers have every right to find this dubious. Macy's was forced to pay $600,000 to settle a lawsuit a few years ago accusing Macy's (owned by the same conglomerate that owns Bloomingdale's and Burdines) of disproportionately targeting black and Latino shoppers and illegally handcuffing and detaining them. Neither is international banking giant HSBC, the third-largest company listed on the London Stock Exchange, renowned for pursuing Dr. King's vision for society:

“The movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are questions that must be asked.”

The B section has a lovely anecdote from columnist John Kelly, in which a bigoted reader tells Kelly that “she liked D.C. better when blacks had their place and whites had theirs. She preferred it when the two didn't mix.” Kelly, the righteous warrior for racial equality, reports his response thus: “Look lady, I said, you're in the wrong city. You're in the wrong country. We fought a war over that. The United States is a mixed-race melting pot. You don't like that, maybe you should move to Iceland.”

Nowhere, though, in “John Kelly's Washington” is it mentioned that denizens of Iceland have just as much representation in the US Congress as the black people who make up a majority of the column's (and paper's) eponymous city. If the woman was after black people's disempowerment, she certainly was not in the wrong city. Mysteriously, the Tea Party appears never to have taken up the cause of the capital's citizens, despite the fact that the original Boston Tea Party was in protest of the taxation without representation that besets Washingtonians. Who has taken up that cause? Occupy DC.

I spoke with Sam Jeweler, 23, Occupy DC activist and product of the DC public school system, who has personally taken up the cause of statehood as his focus. It wasn't always thus. “Growing up here I always thought that it was pretty absurd, but I never thought much about what I could do. It felt like too big of an obstacle for anyone to do anything about. But, I hadn't realized how insidious it was, what a life and death situation it was.”

“Needle exchange programs are proven to save lives,” he elaborates, “and Congress blocked the effort to set one up here. As a result, we have a 3% HIV rate in DC, which is the highest in the nation and rivals some places in Africa. There are so many people in the city that should be receiving services – food stamps, health care, education – that we can't provide, because we don't have budget autonomy. Most cities our size have the ability to tax the incomes of suburbanites working in the city. We've got the wealthiest suburbanites in the country, but can't establish a commuter tax, because representatives from Virginia and Maryland wield so much influence in Congress, and we go unrepresented.”

The obstacle remains massive, but Occupy DC has helped Sam and his comrades generate some momentum for the cause by undertaking a hunger strike with three demands: representation in Congress, budget autonomy and legislative autonomy.

Sam and occupiers Kelley Mears and Adrian Parsons set up shop in an open-faced tent in the square for full transparency. Says Sam, “Even though we should have been resting the entire time to save energy, we started going to Congress to meet with people every day. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) did a 24 hour solidarity strike and read our declaration into the congressional record. [DC's non-voting Delegate to Congress] Eleanor Holmes Norton advised us to start eating, because it wasn't going to happen, but she became consistently more supportive. Eventually, we got to watch her talk about us on the House floor. That was really inspiring. Boehner locked the door on us, so we parked our wheelchairs outside his office and slapped a 'No Taxation without Representation' sticker on the door. We got a lot of press.”

Everyone stopped for different reasons, including medical issues, and at different times. Sam recalls something comedian and activist Dick Gregory told them. “He said, 'You don't hunger strike to make bad people do good things, you hunger strike to bring positive forces together.' At the time I dismissed it, but later, I began to see what he meant. Eventually, the hunger strike had run its course, but we have momentum and decided, 'Let's go into an actual campaign.'”

To that end, they held Occupy DC's first community general assembly a couple of weeks ago, bringing 40 people to the meeting in bourgeois Chevy Chase, including representatives of the mayor's office and Edward M. Meyers, author of “Public Opinion and the Political Future of the Nation's Capital.” The group talked strategy and developed talking points. Sam hopes to replicate this type of organizing all over the city, including impoverished areas that don't at all resemble Chevy Chase. Luckily, other occupiers come from other neighborhood and can help with organizing.

But the effort has to be national. The group has just returned from a four-day road trip that took them all the way up to New Hampshire, where state politicians have taken up the call for hearings on DC statehood, to happen on January 27. The group has even gotten arch-conservative New Hampshire State Rep. Al Baldasaro to show an open mind about DC statehood. Baldasaro, who recently made waves for complimenting the crowd at a GOP debate for booing a gay marine as “great,” told Sam that he doesn't think statehood should be a partisan issue. Sam said, “This is the kind of issue where it's pretty hard to argue that we shouldn't have statehood. There is no benefit to the current situation. It's actually this crazy. You're not missing anything.”

Also on the national front, Occupy DC has set up an online petition at OccupyTheVoteDC.org – they are trying to get 617,996 signatories, as many people as there are DC residents.

Sam found his way to the Occupy movement getting arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. “In an average group of people, the panic would have been too much, but we gave the helicopters overhead the peace sign and sang the national anthem. It was so empowering. And we live in a world where we don't feel we have much power.”