Take a Walk on the Wild Side: RestoringTruthiness.org visits OWS in DC

Unknown | Restoring Truthiness
Man is a social animal. Often he isn’t particularly solicitous or even sociable, but he does tend to gather together in hierarchical, articulated groups and his conduct doesn’t stray far from accepted norms without incurring negative reinforcement. In other words, mankind doesn’t leave the city to run a farm and raise his own food, mankind signs up for a slot on karaoke night at a gay bar.

Fortunately, the Restoring Truthiness R&D department, located deep within the system compound, is interested in how mankind organizes itself into groups and works closely with like-minded associations, including DARPA, ANONYMOUS, MI5, @CrankyKaplan, and several other multifunctional entities DBA mattress stores.

A vacancy recently opened up when our sociological expert retired (actually, an intern who was fucked to death in an ingenious if diabolical manner by an aboriginal tribe that worships the ox. Ave atque vale Tim or Tom. You can see the video on YouTube.) I decided to take it for the hazard pay and the fact that I knew it would worry my mom and I needed an edge going into Christmas.

My first assignment was to infiltrate the Occupy Wall Street camp set up in Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, blend in and learn their ways. Lucky for me the Plaza is just across the street; unluckily my works demands that I dress like the Brooks Brothers poster child.

Like any good reporter, I did my homework before I entered the camp by asking if anyone had been hit by a flying projectile (no) or if there were any annoying drum circles (no long) or, worse, anyone selling macrame. I also gave several people the opportunity to talk me out of it, from co-workers, to the lobby guard at the desk, to a cop sitting on a motorcycle staring at the camp with the single-mindedness of a scout watching an enemy camp. I ignored their perfectly good advice to eat lunch instead because I’m a reporter with a duty to the public that overrides my physical comfort and, dare I say, personal safety. I also felt like stretching my legs. Mostly the last thing. As for my appearance, I made do with taking off my jacket and tie, rolling my shirt sleeves up and mussing my hair. I certainly felt dirty and am sure this gave me the confidence I needed to move around unnoticed.

Strategically, Freedom Plaza has good points and bad points. It’s elevated above street level and close to the White House and lots of yuppie lunch counters, including a Starbucks with free wi-fi access (good luck on getting any odecay’s past the IBMay’s.) Pennsylvania Avenue runs along the south border giving the Occupiers high visibility and, typical of government pussy-footing when it comes to recognizing black Americans, the plaza honors both Pierre L’Enfant and Martin Luther King. It’s bordered on the north by the National and Warner theaters, so I dubbed the camp ‘Occupy the Theater District’. Until further notice, this is the camp’s official designation. Beyond the western wall sits the Willard hotel.

The Plaza’s bad points are also that the site is elevated and close to Pennsylvania avenue, and the high visibility creates interest that quickly subsides into indifference or even animosity when the general population realizes that not much is going on. At this point, the Occupy site has become a kind of white-collar NASCAR with bored spectators waiting for something interesting to happen, like a police strike with water cannons or pepper spray. The Warner was dark when I visited and the National was playing Jersey Boys so if you’re already biased against the movement, their being so close to such crappy fare must produce a frisson of schadenfreude. (There’s got to be a story in the theater’s lurch toward spectacle over substance. I’d call it ‘A Streetcar Named Mama Cats Boys Sense.’ Sure, it’s nothing new, but at least Busby Berkeley had to good sense to show some T&A.)

Another of the site’s bad points is that most of the plaza has granite flooring, with only two incidental spots for greenery, both now covered with tents. I’ve been camping in the Appalachians in December and I can tell you that, no matter what precautions they’d taken, those people are cold.

I figured they had to have some kind of leadership and core beliefs, even if a generous person would say that they were playing it close to the vest and everybody else would say that they didn’t really. Approaching the site, the first thing I noticed was the smell; unwashed clothes and bodies, bad food, and shit. What really surprised me was that it didn’t smell like urine, which is odd because pretty much all the other public spaces in DC do. I also noticed that the camp was segregated into two distinct tent clusters; the larger on the west side and the smaller on the east.

The west cluster was made up of Occupiers and the east of homeless, who differed from the Occupiers in that they were both up and moving and dressed for the cold. The few Occupiers I’d seen earlier were dressed like college kids rousted by a 3 am fire drill- flip flops, blanket togas, and bed head.

I walked around looking for something interesting, but all I saw where zipped up tents with their entrances facing each other. There were a few desultory signs giving only the suggestion of discontent and none of the obdurate zeal I had seen on television. There wasn’t a drum circle, there weren’t lines of communications majors linking arms and legs in what some people call a ‘dragon chain’ and I call ‘second base’. It was simply quiet and stinky. I did see one display- a message painted on a large piece of plywood reading ‘How much longer?’ and encircled by worn out pairs of shoes, including a pair of pink, child-sized sandals. I suppose it was trying to emulate the piles of shoes found by liberating forces in nazi concentration camps, and my gut reaction to the question was ‘Never again! As long as people stop leaving their shoes here.’ Really, trying to equate American style poverty with a death camp is like trying to equate being the kind of people who have more than one pair of shoes with the kind of people who were forced by starvation to eat shoes. I was unmoved by the effort. Maybe if instead of shoes they had a single drum, its owner long since pepper sprayed, concussed and carted away.

I finally found someone running a food tent and started a parley. His name was something unintelligible and he was wearing warm, dark clothes and had on a pair of Funkadelic sunglasses covered in glitter. I liked him immediately; he seemed to regard me with polite suspicion. I took a picture of a list of community rules, probably the closest I had yet come to any kind of manifesto, but they included ‘We will respect all peoples,’ and ‘We will not carry weapons of any kind’ and were the same kinds of rules posted in the subway.

I asked him a couple of questions about the Occupy movement but he didn’t seem interested in talking about politics and, frankly, neither did I. So I asked him if he was the official mess hall for the group and he said, ‘Well, we feed the community first, you know, and if there’s anything left over we feed the homeless’ and nodded their way. And that’s probably the most interesting thing I learned while I was there- the Occupy movement does see itself as a community with shared beliefs and working toward a common end, and the rest of the people, including me and the homeless, were a different kind of animal altogether. Then he asked me if I’d like something to eat; I said no, but I was really touched. Here was a guy who was feeding the hungry and not asking a lot of questions. I don’t do that. I wanted to give something back so I complimented him on the colorful Tibetan prayer flags strung along the top of the tent. He didn’t know what they were and said ‘Oh, you know, people come by and put things up,’ so I told him that each panel had a prayer printed on it and Buddhists believe that each time they flutter in the wind it sends a blessing to Heaven. He seemed pleased and I was glad.

I wished him a good day and was turning to go when I saw two Occupiers close up. Both young males, one with the pasty bad skin and Thorazine shuffle of a long-term psych patient, and the other cleaner and with his hair combed, warmly greeting what I took to be a john.

Back in my office I thought about what I’d seen. I’d expected an organized, anti-social, anti-everything group of crazies. What I saw was an organized, social, mostly anti everything group of crazies, and they weren’t any different from any other political party. There were leaders, conspicuously quiet and probably somewhere else warmer and better fed, manipulating a group of people whose ideals were so coalesced around a few tenants that they had banded together with nowhere else to go. Are the republican or democratic parties any different- telling their constituents whatever will keep them occupied and on message, making enemies of anyone who doesn’t agree with them? I doubt it. Parties, groups, and movements all strike me as being organizations whose bottom line is the amount of public support they can call forth at any moment and with long-term objectives that aren’t for the public good but to sustain their existence. Who isn’t disgusted with politicians? To paraphrase Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy and he is sitting behind a one of hundreds of large mahogany desks on Capitol Hill.’

That night, riding the subway home, I saw a perfect example of the convoluted bullshit that passes for political action these days. All available ad space inside the car was taken up by Sierra Club messages decrying the health risks increasing levels of mercury are posing to the unborn, and pictures of shapely pregnant bellies were juxtaposed next to a blue and white photograph of a dark satanic mill. That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone mention mercury as a dangerous contaminate since the 80s scare with tuna, and the first time since the politically active 1 percenters bullied congress into outlawing incandescent light bulbs because of the energy savings and mandating their replacement with curly florescent light bulbs. Personally I like the ‘ground control to Major Tom’ blue-white light they generate, but each bulbs contains enough mercury to contaminate 6,000 gallons of water, according to the EPA. All stupid ideas seem like good ones at the time, which is why you should never decide to drive to Atlantic City when you’ve shut down a bar. La revolución! Viva!