Cherry blossoms aren’t the only thing likely to bring tourists to Washington, D.C., this spring. Some will be coming for a 30-day, Occupy Wall Street-inspired protest.
OccupyWashingtonDC.org, a group of occupiers that split this winter from the protesters camping in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, has invited activists from around the country to gather in Franklin Square for a monthlong sit-in starting March 31.
But the plan has ignited a long-smoldering dispute between the two groups. Occupy DC protesters, who were evicted from their tent cities in early February, object to the national ambitions of the offshoot group and think the movement should focus exclusively on local issues.
The dispute has played out online for months, but with the NOW DC (short for the National Occupation of Washington DC) event fast approaching, the controversy over the future of the movement in Washington is increasingly apparent.
The conflict centers on two of the career activists who appear to lead OccupyWashingtonDC.org — Kevin Zeese, a lawyer who ran for Senate in 2006 as Maryland’s Green Party nominee, and Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician and Congressional fellow for Physicians for a National Health Program, a group that advocates for a single-payer national health insurance system.
Occupy DC activists say Zeese and Flowers tried to dominate the protest movement last winter.
Sam Jewler, an Occupy DC activist who frequently serves as spokesman for the group, said Zeese and Flowers “were basically run out of Freedom Plaza for trying to hold excessive amounts of power.”
But Zeese blamed outsiders — he called them “infiltrators” — for trying to derail the movement and said that he and Flowers simply decided to switch strategies amid the turmoil.
Steve Chrismer, another NOW DC organizer, also dismissed the criticism.
“There are some people who love to stir things up and others may not be as skeptical as they should be,” he said in an email to Roll Call.
The infighting is not terribly surprising; many said it is the hallmark of a “leaderless” movement. Similar conflicts played out on the right in the early days of the tea party movement. The leaders of two of the most prominent tea party groups, the Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express, even took their disputes to court.
“We’ve looked around at different occupations around the country, and it’s sort of the same story,” Chrismer said. “There are some dissenters.”
But libertarians, anarchists and the other activists who make up the Occupy Wall Street movement are dissenters by nature, and corralling them has proved particularly challenging.
NOW DC will have Capitol Hill protests and teach-ins on foreign policy, corporate involvement in politics and labor unions, among other topics.
Occupy DC, on the other hand, rarely inserts itself into national politics. Local activists have resisted interaction with Congress.
“I am very upset how groups from around the country use DC as their temporary staging ground,” Wade Simmons, another protester associated with Occupy DC, told Roll Call in an email.
Occupy DC working groups based in Mount Pleasant, Chevy Chase and at the University of Maryland are organizing a carnival in McPherson Square on March 31, the same day that NOW DC has planned its first general assembly meeting just one block away.
The group has also teamed up with the Amalgamated Transit Union for an April 4 rally in support of increased funding for public transportation.
Last month a group of Occupy DC activists, largely veterans of the McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza encampments, voted not to endorse the April event.
The meeting, documented in the Twitter feed of several attendees, revealed deep-seated tension between the groups’ leaders that could end up hurting the movement’s spring resurgence.
Occupy Our Homes, a related group that helps Washington-area residents save their houses from foreclosure, has not endorsed NOW DC either.
Still, Jewler said he would try to capitalize on the energy ginned up by NOW DC.
“I think most, if not all, of us will be in solidarity with the individuals who do come,” Jewler said. “Though we cannot necessarily offer much in the way of housing, food or arrest money.”
Taking a cue from Washington’s homeless, NOW DC protesters will skip the tents and sleep on the streets.