A View From Inside ‘Occupy CPAC’ in Washington, D.C.
The last time I took a ride with local community organizing group Fight For Philly for a story, we’d ridden a school bus around North Philadelphia, then headed back to Center City as members pushed their opposition to Wells Fargo’s school-swap deals and Sen. Pat Toomey’s indebtedness to corporate interests. On Friday, the trip would take us south—on a coach bus, no less—to Washington, D.C., where the Conservative Political Action Conference was going on all weekend. The plan was to meet with similar community action groups from around the Northeast, and hold demonstrations against the festivities. We left at Philly around 7 a.m., and when I woke up, the bus was already crawling through Capitol traffic. PW photographer Ryan Strand came along with me and all photos in this blog are his work.
The groups met at the zoo. They included New York-based group United NY; D.C.-based Our DC; Pittsburgh-based One Pittsburgh; Baltimore-based Good Jobs, Better Baltimore; and Fight for Philly. Members from Occupy Baltimore had constructed a life-sized cardboard baseball mitt, which read, “Mitt.” Before anyone headed in, a good 25 people got their picture taken with it. (It turned out that the man-sized mitt was a prop for another group opposing Mitt Romney. That group wore Los Angeles Dodgers jerseys, which they’d remade to say “Tax Dodgers.” Everyone’s number was “1%.”)
The activists walked through the zoo, past the zebra and tiger pens (which were separated by a single fence, essentially taunting the tiger all day, everyday) to Connecticut Avenue, where police blocked off a lane for the protesters.
“We’re the tax dodgers here, saying, yep, full speed ahead,” a member sarcastically told me as he marched down the street. “We like being part of the one percent and we want to keep up all this tax dodging. We don’t want any curveballs.”
The Baltimore group had brought two tents with them and held them high in the air as a show of solidarity with the Occupy movements that’ve been kicked out of cities the country over. Chants of “We are the 99 Percent” went on to the sounds of cars honking down the street.
When the group of about 200 arrived in front of the Marriot Hotel, there was already a gigantic blow-up “fat cat,” standing about 30 feet high, squeezing a worker to death. It’d been set up by some of the unions on hand. First thing I noticed was right-wing blogger and columnist Robert Stacy McCain, of whom I’m a fan, taking video of the group with a small digital camera on the front lawn sloped above the sidewalk. I went up to him and asked, “Are you Robert Stacy McCain?” He confirmed he was. And I couldn’t help but to gush over that. “They don’t let you bring beer outside,” he told me. Then he opened his jacket to reveal an open Corona bottle on an inside pocket. A lime partially stuck out the top. I told him that was awesome.
The groups were at first forced to the sidewalk by the police after two tents were put on a sloped lawn. And the police weren’t kidding about the sidewalk. One step on the grass and you’d get yelled at. Several officers mouthed “Back on the sidewalk” at me from yards away.
Chants went on. After a few minutes, the crowd was told it could walk up the driveway at the Marriot and get closer to the conservative conferencees. People in shirts, ties and their candidate stickers came out to look at and take pictures of the crowd. A few minutes later the group was forced back to the street, where police said they’d be allowed to stay. As soon as that happened, members of conservative media outlets swarmed, looking for on-camera arguments. One such occurred between an Occupy protester and Peter Ingemi, head of Da Tech Guy Blog, who immediately went into it over abortion. “If Susie Korman did not give the money to Planned Parenthood,” he asked a protester, “who would they be giving the money to, Taco Bell?”
He answered his own question.
“They would give it to another charity that does breast cancer screenings. That’s what Susie Korman does.” He then claimed 91 percent of the pregnant women who go into Planned Parenthood do so to get abortions. The protester said no, abortion is only three percent of what Planned Parenthood does. “That’s bullshit,” Ingemi screamed back.
He then claimed Korman’s decision to pull funding was legitimate because Planned Parenthood is a “polarizing organization.”
“Only to the right!” the protester came back.
His interviews with what he calls “Occupods” can be found here.
Jesse Waters of the Bill O’Reilly program was on hand, too. Waters, who has a penchant for interviewing people and getting them to make fools of themselves on camera, was there to do just that. Most people avoided him, though three older women who’d brought a “Save Medicare” sewn blanket gave it to him and made him hold it as he walked through the streets.
I ran into right-wing blogger Jim Holt, too. He stuck his head in a crowd to watch some of the banter, and when someone asked him who he was with, he claimed he was just at the convention. Next thing I knew he was gone.
Within all that, there was one counter-protester. Just one. Her name was Kim Carlisle and she said she was from Montgomery County, Md. She held a sign reading “Hocus Potus,” claiming President Obama’s economic policies could only work if some sort of magic or sorcery were involved. She said the 99 percent movement is essentially “class warfare” and what people don’t realize is that the 1 percent is suffering just as bad as everyone else.
“I grow plants and sell them at farmers markets,” she told PW. “I also do some landscaping and these are wealthy people in Montgomery County, and they have told me—I’ve known them for many years—and without exception, they’ve told me they lost money in their portfolios. They don’t know if they’re going to be taxed even more.” Due to her rich clients’ losing money, she said, she sold less plants and had less landscaping business in 2011 than ever before. It’s gotten so bad, she may have to work for someone else, something she hasn’t done in over 30 years.
“A lot of people here, I’ve seen they carry union signs,” she said. “They support the unions. You let your feet do the talking. If you’re not happy with the package you’ve got at work, or your benefits package, you go find a job somewhere else, or you produce something yourself and sell it. I’m not sympathetic at all with people who want handouts all the time and want their loans forgiven.”
A large conference attendee came out wearing a brown suit and Converse All Stars. He grabbed Ingemi and taunted some of the protesters. He told them they were homeless, and being paid “$60 a head” to attend the conference by community groups and unions. “I’m here from New York on my own will,” screamed a protester back at him.
“Sixty dollars a head!”
As ridiculous as the allegation originally sounded, this video from the Daily Caller at least confirmed where the CPACer was coming from. One union member told the conservative media outlet he did not like his union but jumped at the opportunity to make $60 for a couple hours of protesting. Although the allegation that “homeless” were “shipped in” was more likely based on his own interpretations of the community groups on hand, who at this point had started a dance circle.
As the group began leaving, more CPAC attendees came out to greet the protesters. A guy with a Mitt Romney sticker on his shirt walked forward and back, giving everyone the thumbs down. Some teenagers with student passes stood on the edge and told passers-by they want to be rich some day and, when that happens, they don’t want to be “taxed to death.” Ron Paul stickers were pasted to their chests.
I didn’t go inside. But that was another story. If you saw the speeches on CSPAN, it’s hard to imagine how Mitt Romney won the straw poll on Sunday. His talk to the crowd was as tired and pandering as they come. Rick Santorum’s, as usual, was heartfelt and legitimate about the issues he cares about – and has, his entire career. That Romney won (Santorum claimed Romney “rigged” the vote) probably has more to do with the Republican desire to hold their noses and vote for the guy they believe independents will most likely get on board with, for some reason, not the candidate who they believe represents their interests. And although a new poll shows Santorum in the lead nationally, you can probably expect the Republican establishment to put an end to that as soon as they can.
Other highlights included a white nationalist hosting a panel about muticulturalism killing the American Identity and some truly ridiculous rappers singing about, they claimed, “knickers,” which has been contested. Later on in the weekend, Andrew Breitbart ran outside and told members of Occupy DC to “stop raping people.”
Back on the bus, I talked to a few people about the “$60 a head” claim, having not yet seen the Sheetmetal Workers Local 100 protester saying that about his union. “We were supposed to get money for this?” said one of the protesters with a laugh. “How come no one told me that?”