Lia Grainger is a Canadian journalist. She is currently travelling across the United States interviewing activists from across the political spectrum. To follow her trip, visit Awinterofdiscontent.com. We’ll be cross-posting some of her blog posts on the This blog as she travels. Lia has been with the Washington, D.C. encampment since Monday. Here, she chronicles the arrival of Occupy the Highway.
For the past two weeks, the town and cities that span the 380 kilometres between New York City and Washington, D.C. have played host to a motley entourage of foot travellers. On November 9, two dozen of Occupy Wall Street’s New York residents embarked on Occupy the Highway, a two week walk from the birthplace of the occupy movement to the nation’s capitol. It’s a mobile model of occupation that the rest of the movement—especially those occupations that now find themselves homeless—might consider emulating.
The ragtag crew arrived at Occupy DC in Washington’s MacPherson Square on Wednesday, a weather-beaten and blistered but exuberant group more than 50 strong. Their arrival was timed to coincide with the conclusion of work by the congressional budget-cutting supercommittee. The group planned to lobby congress to end corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich and to stimulate the economy by rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and investing in education, clean-energy and public health. The group also made one very specific demand: to end the Bush-era tax cuts that benefit only the wealthy, something the Obama administration promised but failed to deliver.
By now, the supercommittee’s rather predictable failure is well known, and the marchers’ demands have—also perhaps predictably—clearly gone unanswered.
But more than making specific demands about the economy, those marching also hoped to make the movement visible in rural communities unfamiliar with Occupy, to connect with other occupations, and to encourage “a national dialogue about how to reclaim our democracy.”
A young marcher named Elliott who started in New York seemed pleased with the new contact the group made as they travelled, particularly in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods in southwest Philadelphia and on the outskirts of Baltimore. “Everywhere we went we were supported. People were cheering, high-fiving us and bringing us food as we passed,” said the curly-haired 18-year-old. “I’d like to see a general assembly in every city, in every town.” (The march draws on the methods of previous movements: in 1965, Martin Luther King led three marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.)
The marchers made stops at Occupy Philadelphia and Baltimore and it was during a much-needed day off in Philadelphia that they learned OWS’s New York camp in Zuccotti Park was being raided. Gathered in the dark around a glowing laptop, they watched as their friends were arrested and their makeshift community dismantled.
In the days following the eviction, “What’s next?” was a ubiquitous question in New York’s suddenly tentless Zuccotti Park. The same question now faces most Canadian occupations, most recently Occupy Toronto in St. James Park, which was announced completely cleared yesterday.
But for the Occupy the Highway crew, there was no such question. The group woke on November 16 and continued marching, continued sharing their ideas and goals with those they met, and continued holding general assemblies.
Might this be a new face for the movement? There can be no eviction, because unlike the ongoing encampments around the world, this embodiment of OWS is transient. Conversations about the legality of OWS’s encampments, which distract from the issues raised by the movement, become irrelevant when the occupation is constantly on the move. The dynamic nature of the this new method also excites and draws the media, which has grown understandably tired of covering the tent encampments.
And unlike an ongoing occupation, this mobile movement doesn’t alienate local populations—it reaches new ones. It also serves to disseminate the process of the general assembly, the form of direct democracy embraced by occupiers, to those who need it most: marginalized populations whose voices are seldom or poorly represented in the American democratic process.
But bringing this process to new audiences is not without its challenges. OWS critics and supporters alike are impatient for a coherent list of demands from the movement – the media is absolutely dying for a cohesive and easily packaged message. But as This contributor Gregory Shupak described in a recent post, the messy but highly egalitarian process of the general assembly that occupiers hold so dear is in many ways itself the message.
It’s a point many seem to miss. As the marchers limped into D.C.’s rainy, mud-soaked MacPherson Square, they were greeted by camp residents, local supporters, and a long row of cameras and reporters, many of whom clamoured impatiently for a sound bite they could file in time for the evening news.
They wanted immediate one-on-one interviews. They didn’t get them. Instead, a tall marcher with long braids named Sarah provided a long and detailed explanation of the process of the general assembly, including a description of the roles (neutral and constantly rotating facilitators, a time-keeper, a person to list speakers), the hand signals (to show support, dislike, or neutrality, to communicate different types of information, and to avoid talking over one another), and the manner in which consensus on a proposal is reached (explanation, questions, friendly amendments, blocks, consensus).
This exasperated the press. As Sarah spoke, reporters began interrupting. “We don’t care!” Yelled one man. “Let us ask questions!” Interjected another in a black trench coat. “The five o’clock news won’t wait!”
A march organizer and facilitator named Kelley Brannon reined them in: “Throughout our walking travels, we have held public general assemblies to bring this process outside of the occupation. We ask that you respect this, and perhaps learn from this.”
Though it might seem like a fairly inconsequential exchange, it illustrates a fundamental failure on the part of the press and much of the public to recognize that this process is as vital a component of the Occupy movement as any of the demands the occupiers might make.
And bringing that process to new audiences is more challenging than exercising it with those who are well rehearsed in the practice. Yet this is what the marchers were doing with the press that had gathered, and what they did as they travelled. As camps across the continent are evicted one by one, the occupy movement enters a new phase. Disseminating the process of the general assembly appears imperative for the movement to propagate. Judging by the success of Occupy the Highway, perhaps this mobile model of occupation is one the rest of the movement might consider emulating and repeating.
The demands of individual marchers were diverse, but they shared in a common process that allowed those demands to be heard and discussed. At the marchers’ general assembly on November 23, they shared their thoughts and reflections, a few of which are recorded below.