Occupy DC and Stop the Machine: Planning a revolution, in three parts


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(Photo: TBD Staff)

St. Stephen and the Incarnation is a progressive, bilingual Episcopal church on Newton Street NW near 16th Street, on the northern edge of Columbia Heights. It has a Facebook page, and a blog with such entries as "Bless Those Who Persecute You," which reads, "Test: can I extend the tent pegs to invite more people in? Can I call down a blessing on those who persecute me and say homosexuality is a curse? This morning I asked God’s blessing on Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann."

Even still, St. Stephen is a house of worship, which makes it an usual place for would-be revolutionaries to "Stop the machine!" and "Create a new world!," the paired mantras of the October2011 protests that began this morning in Freedom Plaza in Downtown D.C. But the some 65 men and women assembled in a rear meeting hall at the church yesterday were not your typical revolutionaries, either. They were revolutionaries from revolutions past — namely, the '60s.

A "Peacekeeper Training" session had been planned for 1 – 5 p.m., a day after a "Nonviolence Training" session of the same length. I'd assumed the organizers wouldn't actually spend four hours on a single session to train protestors to keep the peace — that, instead, there would be briefer sessions, with people coming and going — but I was wrong. When I arrived shortly after 3 p.m., the walls were already plastered with easel-pad sheets filled with notes, among them:

"We don't always agree."
"Some are followers too quickly."
"Need to listen better, a lot of distracting stimulus."
"Question: when will we form actual affinity groups."
"Some people who like speaking to authority figures."
"Be kind, not 'nice.'"
"Not afraid of arrest."

At the moment, they were discussing "Consensus & Quick Decisions," according to the meeting's agenda. "Who here thinks it's difficult to make a decision in a short amount of time?" asked a rotund woman leading the session. (I'm paraphrasing here, because I hadn't yet sat down with my notebook.) She wore a nightgown-sized T-shirt, a flowing blue skirt with flower prints, and Tevas over colorful — and possibly Bolivian — socks. "Who here thinks it's difficult to make a decision without enough info?"

"Oh yeah!" shouted a lean, barefoot man with a scraggly gray beard and a name tag that read "Bodhi." He was standing behind me, and, done interjecting, resumed availing himself of the sliced apples and Trader Joe's peanut butter. (Also spread there: Newman's Own grape juice, baby carrots, a cucumber, lightly salted rice cakes, and Nature Valley granola bars.)

Bodhi was a typical attendee, at least in terms of race (white) and age (late middle). The session was being led by Veterans for Peace, and there were not a few T-shirts representing the organization. Others read "Wage Peace," "Power to the Peaceful," and "Waste Warrior." I counted three tye-dyes. But there were also men in pleated khakis, starched button-downs, and loafers, and a few activists in their twenties, including a guy in a multi-colored straw cowboy hat — something Micky Rourke might wear while tripping on acid — and another in Sauconys, with "BELIEVE" tattooed the entire length of his right forearm.

Dr. Margaret Flowers, co-director of It's Our Economy and one of the main organizers of Stop the Machine (as it's being called), was in attendance. A Baltimore pediatrician who quit practicing in 2007 to advocate for single-payer health care, she's a fit blond woman, roughly 40 years old, who clearly hasn't gotten a good night's sleep since coming up with the idea for Stop the Machine back in April. We talked about her mission to correct the imbalance of power and wealth in this country by bringing together the peace, environmental, and financial-reform movements, among others. She said the current conditions — wealth inequality in particular — aren't sustainable, and that history suggests we're due for a revolt.

But not, despite invocations of the Arab Spring, a violent revolt. This "American Autumn," as activists are optimistically calling it, will be peaceful, Flowers insists. "If you're violent, you're not part of the movement," she said. Of course, if the movement grows large enough, it's sure to draw — or even become overrun with, or co-opted by — undesirable elements. See: the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Or, Flowers notes: MoveOn.org's attempts to join Occupy Wall Street. "We fully expect to be infiltrated," she says.

And already, Flowers believes, she's being watched. The other morning, there was "a strange car" with two men parked across the street from her Baltimore home. "We back out and they drive off. They were clearly trying to intimidate. We expect that stuff."

Our conversation was interrupted when Flowers was beckoned to speak to the audience. After a round of applause, she told them, "We've been overwhelmed by media the last two days," drawing heartier applause. She encouraged people to speak with reporters, to tell their personal story, but warned them of the question, "So what are you doing?"

"Because that's the way they undermine us," she explained.

I cursed myself for not asking that question first.

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