Occupy D.C.: The District’s Newest DIY Space?
The stakes got a lot higher for Occupy Wall Street protests around the country this week, but in D.C., the protesters encamped in McPherson Square have basically been left to their own devices by the authorities. It didn't take long for Occupy D.C., now well into its second month, to develop its own infrastructure, folkways, and culture. And so we've heard plenty about Occupy D.C.'s eating habits, reading habits, writing habits, and, um, cartooning habits.
It took me until last week to notice, but Occupy D.C. seems to have become something of a DIY venue, as well.
"There are beginning to be conversations about how to be intentional about the culture we’re trying to create in the space,” and about how events can focus that culture, says Janelle Treibitz, a member of Occupy D.C.'s arts and culture committee. So Occupy D.C. is beginning to see some scheduled arts programming—and not all of it explicitly political.
Treibitz is working on an event called Occupy Kabaret Street on Saturday, which will feature the well-regarded Bread and Puppet Theater troupe as well as other puppetry groups and performers. Beginning at 12:30 p.m., the puppeteers will lead a procession around McPherson and then to other locations in D.C. that have been home to protest movements (for example, the National Mall, site of the 1968 Resurrection City encampment). Treibitz says she hopes to see more arts-related workshops at Occupy D.C. going forward.
Another member of the arts and culture committee, artist Adrian Parsons, has scheduled a series of live shows in McPherson Square. The Jen Chapin Trio, a soulful folk-pop group from New York, is performing tomorrow at 9 p.m., Parsons says. D.C. hip-hop band The Cornel West Theory will perform at 4 p.m. on Saturday. And Brandon Moses, who fronts the jagged art-blues band Laughing Man, will play at 4 p.m. on Sunday. Rain meant that a show yesterday—featuring local hardcore bands L&T&W and Bitter American—had to be canceled, Parsons says, but he's hoping to reschedule it for next week.
Tonight at 8:30 p.m., there's an outdoor screening of The Flaw—a documentary on the roots of the financial crisis that has few kind words for the 1 percent.
Of course, McPherson has already seen plenty of on-the-fly and short-notice arts events. The psych-folk act North Country played an acoustic set last month beneath McPherson Square's equestrian statue. Maura Krause, who works at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, led a workshop on using theatrical techniques to explain the Occupy movement. You can't walk through the park and not hear the ramshackle pulse of the drum circle. "A lot of the activity is impromptu [at Occupy D.C.], whether it's winterization or whether it's music," says Parsons.
A group of architects and architecture students that usually plays under a different name rechristened itself The 99 Percent Band for a show last weekend—and even plugged in. "The guys in the kitchen lent us their generator," says Douglas Palladino, one of the group's members; the band collected tips to pay for the gas. Perhaps too preciously, The 99 Percent Band's set included versions of '60s protest songs with rewritten lyrics. Their take on "The Times They Are a-Changin'" included the line, "Come writers and bloggers/who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance has come again."
According to Parsons, Occupy D.C.'s arts and culture committee started out working on creative approaches to demonstration—like a "1 Percent Metro Ride." "Now there's more and more thinking about art inside the square," he says. Like every other aspect of Occupy D.C., the committee is run by consensus; the members I spoke with weren't aware of every program other members were organizing. But the impulse behind bringing more arts into McPherson is basically twofold: to help build the community of people participating in Occupy D.C., and to bring more people in, even casually.
Any decent protest movement is rich in documentary screenings, banners, and parody lyrics; they're de rigueur, but I'm not totally convinced they do anything besides energize the choir. In contrast, the chance to see the guy from Laughing Man may not draw many more people into the Occupy movement, but it does make McPherson a more appealing place to hang out, even if you're not sticking around afterward to debate the perils of unchecked capitalism. If part of Occupy's mission is to present something of a grassroots utopia, having more art for its own sake seems like a good play.
And McPherson certainly has room for more creative disruption. Because Occupy D.C. hasn't experienced much static from the National Park Service or MPD, Parsons doesn't anticipate any trouble in allowing bands to play with amplification, he says. "It's not that much of a push outside of the normal boundaries of what we do."
Photo courtesy The 99 Percent Band