Pepper Spray, Puking, and Occupy D.C.
One thing I’ve learned from my first protest is to always bring a face-mask or, even more, a gas mask, because frankly pepper spray sucks. I found this out first-hand last year during the peak of the Occupy movement. College life at West Virginia University began to feel repetitive, so to break up the monotony I jumped in the car and drove for 3 hours to a subway station outside of Washington D.C. Repping army boots and my canvas camera backpack I use for hiking, I became an anomaly in the middle of the business crowd rushing like cattle towards their box cubicles where they would spend the rest of their day staring at computer screens until they turned into money and could buy them a new television screen that they could go home and stare at until they fell asleep. Manufactured wasting of lives.
I heard from my friend Gabe Dinsmoor, whom I had spent my exchange time in South Africa traveling and getting lost on the wrong trains in the middle of the night, that the Occupy movement in Washington had grown tremendously since the previous weeks. We met armed with our cameras ready to photograph what we believed at the time to be the new “American Revolution.” I didn’t know exactly what they represented. I knew somehow they represented how I felt the influence of money in our country and politics didn’t fit into what I believed the land of the free that I pledged allegiance to for so many years, should look like.
We met at the subway station in downtown D.C., but soon realized we were unprepared and didn’t know where the actual protest was. It didn’t take long until a protester with a sign came running past us. We stopped him and he was glad to point us in the right direction. Our initial introduction was at ——– where a small faction of the protest was preparing to march to Freedom Plaza where the larger Occupy camp was located. The first sight of the protesters surprised me. First off the protesters were not all young and hippies like I had been hearing and seeing on the news. People of all ages including well-dressed older individuals made up the crowd. Another thing that stood out was the amount of military veterans who were dressed in their uniforms holding anti-war and supportive signs for the movement. You could see the groups of labor unions who made up a large percentage of the protesters and were seen as the group that really ignited the movement when they joined the small unknown Occupiers earlier in the year.
I’ve thought a lot about why the movement was mostly covered as a young hippy movement. I figure that those are the people you usually see, because the young are at the head of the crowds where the cameras are placed and are the ones who do the actual Occupying. The younger unemployed and college students that do not have families to provide for can take the risk to stay and Occupy.
We knew the crowd was ready to move when large marching drums began to beat and the crowd followed. As we marched through the streets the police escorted the crowd and stopped traffic. It was good to see that somewhere in the U.S. the right to assemble and protest was still protected. It contrasted from what I had seen in other cities like New York and Oakland where militarized riot police were beating protesters at every corner under orders of city officials who saw the movement as a nuisance with no real right to assemble. (I also want to state that I don’t blame the police, they are given orders and supplies and are just using that in the way they have been taught. Also, protesters prepare for this sort of police force and sometimes entice it. They believe that when the world sees how they are treated with such force while they are only protesting, the greater population will sympathize with them. It’s a political battle that exists everywhere. What’s bad is when police force is abused or innocent protesters are caught in the crossfire of the protester(mostly anarchist)motivated battle with the police.
We marched to Freedom Plaza and we were introduced to the larger congregation of Occupy protesters. The plaza stood as an outdoor festival, museum, and art exhibit. It became part of the tour for many D.C. visitors. Rather than read and view America’s history behind glass walls individuals could see it as it happening before their eyes. I try explaining this to my friends that complain about the protesters disrupting their views of the museums and hope that someday they will realize that they were in the midst of the history they were so eager to learn about.
The plaza was a literal tent city. It was amazing to see the system they had created to maintain their lives. They had all the necessities covered, food donation areas so the occupiers wouldn’t starve, restrooms, eating areas, planning areas, and even a stage. Stands promoting political and social viewpoints of all kinds were everywhere and art was used in the most creative ways to exhibit them.
We got rumors that another much larger march was about to begin. Being that these protest are so large, it is hard to tell exactly when to organize. Basically, when the crowd starts to move people assemble and begin to follow the head of the protest and as a journalist you should quickly follow to keep up.
While the large protest moved through the streets stopping traffic I ran through the crowd capturing photos of all sorts of characters. At one point running beside the crowd I heard a voice yelling and turned around to see a police officer chasing me. I picked up my speed and disappeared into the middle of the mass of people. I guess I had been running through a restricted area to protesters and didn’t realize it.
At some point during the marching we arrived outside of the National Air and Space Museum. I wasn’t sure why we had arrived here being that this was an Occupy protest which were known to mainly focus on economic inequality. I soon realized that the protest I had followed was a anti-war branch of the larger Occupy protest that saw the drones inside the National Air and Space Museum as promoting unmanned drone strikes which were known to cause collateral damage like civilian deaths.
I ran up the top of the steps to where the head of the crowd was about to enter the museum. I ran to the front of the crowd to get better photos of the crowd which now seemed to be in pushing match with a group of security guards at the entrance of the building That’s when all hell broke loose. The air filled with mist and I immediately began to choke. The crowd rapidly dispersed as people ran in every direction. I remember every time I breathed in my lungs would burn and I’d cough out fighting the urge to vomit which never enabled me to gain another breathe. I grabbed a handkerchief that I had on me and wrapped my face. Most of the crowd had ran down the steps, but a few had remained to help those who were directly hit by the security’s pepper spray and were laying on the ground in immense pain. Those who took on the medic position seemed to know the procedure to deal with pepper spray victims and began pouring bottles, which I believe were, full of milk on the patients eyes and burning skin. I regained my awareness and continued to take photos. I’m not going to lie, I was excited. Moments like this were the reason I had gotten into journalism. Don’t get me wrong I do care about my fellow human beings and hope that I can make a difference as a journalist, but the adrenaline rush from these moments is something I enjoy.
I was disappointed when I returned home expecting to find life-changing photos that would leave a deep impact with the viewers, but only found a hundred photos of people vomiting from the pepper spray.
After the crowd settled down and realized they were locked out of the museum, they decided to Occupy the museum steps. They proceeded to sing solidarity songs and educate people nearby of their views. Seeing that not much was going to happen I spent the rest of the day wandering around D.C. following fringes of the protest including a group in front of the White House that was chased away by police after a shoe was supposedly thrown at a security guard.
I finished my day by driving back to WVU just in time to spend a Saturday night having a few needed drinks.
I’ve had some time to reflect on what the Occupy protests actually meant. In most cities the police have chased out the protesters and the camps have been abandoned. There is no statues to represent the “Revolution” that we thought would occur, it came as a tidal wave that caught on with the spirit of change around the world and dissipated as quickly as it had arrived. Some say it became so big because it didn’t swear loyalty to any idea and gave groups from all underrepresented viewpoints a voice. This may be so, but I also believe it is the reason that it lost momentum so quickly. It had no political party, single leader or clearly set agenda. But maybe that is what made it so great. It was a disorganized random show of rage towards the status quo, but it was also a reflection of the deep feelings of every American, Arab, European, or any human that something isn’t right with our world and something is occurring that is going to cause change. Agree or disagree with the movement its hard to deny that something strange is happening in our world. Whether it will bring freedom and equality or death and destruction is unknown, but like it or not we are in this together as human beings that have to live with one another. In the end we are all Occupiers of this planet.