After a 14-hour drive, two of which were spent in northern Virginia traffic, we arrived back in DC.
McPherson Square had changed dramatically since our departure. The park, which had seemed so large when we were only sleeping on the ground in one quadrant, had been filled with tents.
We made our way to the Capitol building, where the day’s demonstrators were planned. The group was filled with both young and old, seasoned protesters, Occupiers, children and grandparents – people had traveled from across the country to attend the protest.
Retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis was in attendance, and quickly stopped and held by Capitol Police. Assuming his arrest was imminent, protesters rallied behind him.
Captain Lewis was released to cheers and told protesters Capitol Police were confirming his identity and that he was not carrying a weapon. In a later interview with Occupy San Diego, he gave protesters some advice about dealing with police:
“Don’t be shouting things at them that rile them up. I understand the frustration, I understand the anger…we worked within the system, we elected Obama…but if you’re ever involved, do not become physical with the police. You will not win. You will come out worse.”
He also spoke about the Occupy Wall Street eviction, the increasing militarization of police, and the use of tasers and the LRAD system.
After the initial breach, the atmosphere around the Capitol steps turned jubilant, with protesters feeling they had achieved a small victory for the day.
Capitol Police quickly lined up to contain the situation. Most were professional, calm, and even seemed to be enjoying the revelry, but several arrests did occur.
Another young man was arrested shortly after. “I’m not resisting!” he said, “I’m standing here.”
After 2 pm, groups formed for planned autonomous actions and meetings with their Congressional Representatives, including at the Rayburn Office Building, which houses the offices of 169 Representatives. The group decided to forgo the crosswalks to the Rayburn Building and took to the street instead.
Shortly after leaving the Congressional offices, protesters held an impromptu march through the streets. The police response was unprecedented. This was not the first time that an Occupy had taken the streets, but Capitol Police seemed more interested in containing the march than preventing it.
Already people were mic checking for another march, but the group decided to wait until the planned time on the permit.
Just before 7 pm, protesters again took to the streets for the planned march following a route from the Capitol to the Supreme Court and ending at the White House. I lost battery at this time, but still ran ahead of the march with other media. Police presence, perhaps in response to the earlier march, was heavier and more aggressive. At one point an officer forced me off of the sidewalk and into the street. When I told him I was covering the action he said, “if you’re covering it, you’re with them.” Another citizen journalist was similarly forced into the street.
The march ended at the White House.
After chanting and singing, the crowd began to dissipate slightly, with some people leaving for a planned party at the Capitol lawn and others demanding President Obama make an appearance. What we didn’t know at the time was that the President was out to dinner for the First Lady’s birthday. The security demanded by his motorcade returning may explain the events that followed.
Both Park and DC Metro Police were on scene but allowed normal pedestrian traffic to flow through the street in front of the White House and Lafayette Park. As protesters lingered, police presence began to intensify, with Secret Service mobilizing. One person mic checked that he was informed (through sources unknown) that riot police were on their way, bringing dogs, to disperse and presumably arrest any remaining protesters. Several of us decided to remain on site to document the events, aided by our ‘Ninja Backpack’ with its portable military-issue personal generator. After some time we began to see police donning riot gear and there were indeed vehicles marked as K9 units, but there were no signs of dogs or even police mobilization. There were, however, a number of fire trucks and ambulances staged on 17th Street, and police moving in from that area (Note – I lived in DC for a year and saw this many times when the Presidential motorcade was due to pass through a particular street).
Tension steadily increased and we decided to leave the scene, as there were about 20 – 30 people remaining at the White House gate.
As we were walking back on H Street, on the north side of Lafayette Park, police informed us that the park and Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House were closed because “one of you Occupy people” lobbed a smoke device onto the lawn.
The corporate media has reported extensively on that incident, and I was not there, so I will not attempt to recount it. However, I do wonder if there is any correlation between mainstream media’s coverage of #J17 being almost entirely limited to this event and that members of the White House press pool held while the device was investigated.
I can also assert that there were not 1500 people present at the White House at that time, as Secret Service spokesperson George Ogilvie has been quoted as saying.
When we left, the remaining demonstrators were hanging paper hearts on the fence, confident that #J17 had been a success.