Occupy the Congress: Do You Smell a Rat?

I found myself in a Potomac, Maryland, mansion, smack in the middle of an actual 1 percent get-together over drinks and nosherai, talking to a guy whose “small operation” yields around $15,000,000 a year. It buys up local papers and aggregates their sports writing into a national sports media agency. It's looking to sell to or “develop a strategic partnership with” some media mega-corporation – there are, after all, only a few. Unsolicited, this gentleman explained that profits had been increasing because of, among other factors “cuts.” “Out of curiosity, where'd you cut?” I asked him. The reply was as nonchalant as it was predictable. “Oh, just redundancies; we don't need two sportswriters in Nashville,” he explained to someone he knew to be a journalist struggling to make ends meet in a lousy job market.

When I told him I would be covering Occupy DC for the next few days, he warned me of the rat infestation there. In fact, everyone at this soiree shivered at the prospect of rats. Everyone had heard this criticism of Occupy DC; it was each of their de rigeur line on the matter. Rats. “They have rats there.” “Gonna go report on the rats?” “Say 'hi' to the rats for me.” The bus into Washington had idled at an extra-long stoplight on H Street NE, giving me a moment to take in the surroundings, which, at that intersection, included a hair salon, a soul food restaurant and a check-cashing place, all of them boarded up. There were probably rats inside, but no one at the Potomac affair would ever care about those. They might not ever pass that intersection.

Occupy DC is planning its Occupy the Congress event on January 17 (#J17). With the participation of activists from all 50 states, according to organizers, it will orchestrate a massive day of action designed to send the message that participatory democracy is what has been done in America's plazas and parks over the last four months, not what happens on Capitol Hill, where democracy has been corrupted by the influence of wealth. At a #J17 planning meeting, I met Carl McClinton 26, of Clinton, Maryland, (a state which Carl, per local custom, pronounces “Merlin”).

Two years ago, Carl spent 37 days in jail after a judge he characterizes as notoriously racist set his bond at $20,000 for assaulting his sister. After that period, during which Carl lost 15 pounds and thinned out his hair because no shampoo, only soap, was available, the state had no case to bring and Carl was released with no restitution for his time in jail. That experience was horrible, of course, but, says Carl, “It was also the first time I read my Amendments. Otherwise, I would never have joined Occupy.”

In fact, it was something of an accident that he found his was to McPherson Square in DC at all. On his way home one evening, Carl heard drumming and, following the sound, saw people passing out food. He approached an occupier and asked what was going on. After the explanation, “I was like 'Wait a minute. You all are practicing your First Amendment rights. This is what was supposed to happen a long time ago.'”

“I was going to go home that night,” Carl tells me, “but I was steady talking to people and I missed the last train.” Starting that first night, Carl was captivated. “You guys are heroes,” he remembers saying to the occupiers. “I really admire what you're doing.”

But his admiration for the protesters remained a topic for private discussion, Carl recalls. “At first I didn't speak in GAs [general assemblies] because I was one of the only black people. I didn't think white people would accept me. But to be accepted the way I was changed my thinking. Now, I get mad when people think Occupy excludes people of color.”

It is those people of color and the poor who have remained Carl's primary motivators over the months. After all, it is those people who are the most vulnerable to the abuses of a system like ours. Carl's father is rapidly approaching eviction, and not long ago, a favorite cousin of Carl's, who lived in the notorious Barry Farm in Washington, DC's Anacostia neighborhood, died a drug-related death. The primary instrument of repression, as Carl sees it, is a racist prison-industrial complex. “Victory for the Occupy movement,” he says, “would be congressmen and senators actively working with us to make the criminal justice system more just for minorities and the poor. People's cases would be re-seen all over the country.”

“That's why Occupy DC looks so white,” he adds. “There ain't no army, because the soldiers are all in jail, getting exploited. Breaks my heart.”

Times are trying, but Carl finds strength in faith – both the faith those around him exhibit in the work he's doing (“My mom said, 'I think this is going to change the world'”) and the faith he harbors in divine guidance. “I had a vision about Occupy,” he tells me, “that I think God gave me. In the vision, it was obvious that the spirit of God had led all these people to McPherson Square. They met up and shared what they had with the poor, and I knew that the host of heaven and God himself were smiling down. That's when I took heart. God has our back.”

Occupy DC is sort of messy, of course, because it's an ad hoc socialist commune in a public park, made up of tents and folding tables. A sign there says “Remodeling democracy. Please excuse our mess.” The mess, though, was the one thing no one in the Potomac mansion could excuse. They could excuse the mess made by a media executive firing hard-working reporters. They could excuse the mess made by an international commodities market, whose speculation had driven up food prices in the Middle East to such outrageous levels that revolution became inevitable. They could excuse the mess made by a president, whose office/residence sits mere blocks from the rats in McPherson Square (none of which I happened upon, come to think of it), the one who just hired his third Wall Street-bred chief of staff in a row to conspire with the second Wall Street-bred director of the National Economic Council in a row to “fix the economy.”

I smell a rat, too.