Occupy D.C. is put to the test after an unexpected snowfall.
The forecast called for rain Monday and the morning seemed warmer compared to the weekend, but by noon D.C. was seeing its first snow of the season. Flurries around noon froze into quarter-sized flakes by later afternoon. Even then I don’t think anyone expected it to stick. Around five o’ clock, the suits headed unprepared back to the Northern Virginia suburbs. For the Freedom Plaza occupiers, today tested what they’d been planning for since last month.
When I came up from the Federal Triangle metro station a few hours later after the snow had stopped, I expected to see tents sagging under the weight of snow while occupiers worked frantically to seal leaky tents and consolidate goods to the large GP tents. Instead I saw nothing. No snow on tents. No people scratching their heads at failed shelters.
I tried to remember which tent was Jonathan’s so I could knock but since my last visit, the tents had been moved together even tighter. The camp was wet. The plaza was covered with quarter inch of water from snow that had melted off the tarps pulled taught over individual tents. In contrast to the surrounding buildings, there was no snow on any of them.
I made my way to the back of the camp. There were still only two GP tents set up since my last visit. The third tent, the one Jonathan said would be arriving soon, still hadn’t come.
I poked my head in the GP tent that wasn’t the kitchen. About 20 people huddled around heaters stared back at me. A general assembly meeting. I scanned the crowd for a pink puffy coat …or a purple cape. I didn’t see either so I sidestepped to a position behind two people sitting in the corner.
It wasn’t much different that a city council meeting — all the committees and subcommittees reporting and motions and votes.
“Please make sure you are watching your neighbors’ tents. Snow weighs on the tent,” a guy named Javier said. “If snow piles onto these tents, they’re going to collapse or ruin people’s stuff. If you see snow on tents, then knock it off.”
Some other news was passed — like a local church who reached out to the camp looking for someone to speak about the protest at a service on Sunday. And information about a joint general assembly meeting to be held on the 16th with the McPherson square occupiers. The topic: Torture and Detentions.
“Any more announcements?” a girl asked toward the end.
“Yeah, I have something to say.” A 40-something man sitting by the door stood up. “While I was up in New York, I didn’t have access to email. I came back to an email from someone I talk to at the McPherson square camp and they said people at the Freedom Plaza camp have been talking shit about me behind my back. Another person here told me the same thing since I’ve been back.”
I was waiting for something to happen, but there was no reaction from the group.
He continued, “So I just want to say, if anyone has a problem with me or something to say to me, just come say it to me instead of going behind my back. If you have some kind of problem with me, tell me to my face.” And then a motion to close the meeting was passed.
As people filed out of the tent, still no Jonathan. A girl brushed by me to tell the guy that someone was talking shit about that she wanted to talk to him. For being cold and wet everyone seemed to be in particularly good spirits.
I filed out too and followed the first person I could find: Cory, the man with the map.
Cory is the head of the tent committee. He carries a detailed map. It’s a cardboard flap with a diagram of the tent city drawn with a sharpie. The name of each tent’s occupants is written in tiny handwriting beside each black square. He was trying to figure out who lived in a large tent in the middle of the encampment that sits unoccupied during the day.
“Our…main…concern…is that some of the tents….haven’t been weatherized,” he told me. He had a stutter that I didn’t notice when he was speaking in the general assembly tent, but his voice was authoritative. Cory is one of the original Freedom Plaza/Federal Triangle occupiers. Before joining the movement, he lived in Baltimore.“First thing…tomorrow…if…it’s dry, we’re going to…take care of the….ones…that are not…weatherized.”
Until the communal sleeping tent arrives, the tents are being loaded up with sleeping bags and blankets to keep everyone warm.
The organization of the camp is more sophisticated than district officials are willing to admit. District health inspector Mohammad Akhter compared the camps to refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, saying the occupiers were living in primitive conditions, surrounded by rats. Akhter said he would move to evacuate the camps in the event of a winter storm.
“If there’s a real emergency, they are pointed to go from their tents into one of the green tents,” Cory said. But if it gets too bad, the occupiers have arrangements to stay at local churches or homes, he said.
For now though, they’re not going anywhere.
photos by Carlton Purvis