Parsons’ embrace of the D.C. cause came at a time when the Occupy movement, having started out protesting a big, national issue—income inequality—started to focus on more parochial matters. Occupiers have recently begun asking questions about local housing policy, weighing in on, for example, a Foggy Bottom zoning dispute in which a developer wants a low-income housing requirement waived.
Like any activists with a broad ideological cause, it’s understandable that Occupy types would look around for specific examples. And locally, the District’s colonial status in the constitution is the most basic of justice issues. So it was perhaps inevitable that Occupy activists, particularly actual area natives like Parsons, embraced the statehood cause. But would the statehood advocacy community—which for years has sought to brand theirs as a mainstream, all-American cause involving nothing more radical than the notion of no taxation without representation—embrace a guy who mutilated his genitals in the hope of somehow slowing violence in the Middle East?
“Quite frankly, I was surprised that they were even aware of the issue. It doesn’t have a national constituency,” says Mark Plotkin, political analyst for WTOP and a statehood absolutist. Plotkin, though, won’t label Parsons a dilettante or a danger to the cause: Any effort that turns attention to District disenfranchisement, he says, is worthwhile. That said, a hunger strike might not be Plotkin’s preferred tactic. He’d like to see, perhaps, a Democratic candidate oppose President Obama on the voting rights issue in the D.C. primary.
“Everything helps,” Plotkin says. “I’m not going to criticize them. I think it’s courageous. Whatever they do, short of violence to themselves, to get attention—it’s a given that it’s welcome.”
Jesse Lovell, communications director for D.C. for Democracy, says he visited Occupy D.C. to talk up statehood early on. But, even after Parsons’ hunger strike, Lovell says he doesn’t know whether the occupiers specifically support—or know about—H.R. 265, Norton’s “New Columbia Admission Act” legislation, which is the focus of his group. “I would want them to know what these bills are about, so we’re not talking in generalities,” he says. “That’s a much better way to get people motivated.”
The most prominent D.C. voting rights organization, D.C. Vote, issued tentative statements of support for Parsons and company during the strike. But Executive Director Ilir Zherka couldn’t resist some quibbling over methods and tactics. “My immediate response was, one, Congress is leaving in a week, and two, what’s the end game?” says Zherka. “A hunger strike can end because you achieve the goal, or it ends because a person dies. It was unclear to us here what could be accomplished in a short period of time, especially over the holiday season.”
Still, attention is attention—and Parsons got more of it than Zherka’s group ever had. With the end of his fast in sight, Parsons and the former strikers held a press conference on Dec. 30 to announce three new D.C.-related initiatives. They did so in a fashion more in keeping with Occupy D.C. than with D.C. Vote: The protesters introduced their manifesto of demands using the call-and-response human mic check.
“We pride ourselves on trying to work with and coordinate with all elements of the movement,” says Zherka. “As of now—as long as they’re organized and working—they’re part of that movement.”