Protesters sleep on sidewalks to “wake up” people to bank behavior
|April 10, 2012||Posted by James Hill under Featured, Print Issues, Volume 2, Issue 3 (May/June 2012)|
With the arrival of spring, occupiers in Washington, D.C. are sleeping outdoors to decry the greed of big banks and corporations again. But they aren’t setting up tents in Freedom Plaza or McPherson Square this time. They are on the sidewalks in front of the corporate targets that they see as representative of the one percent.
“It started as a necessity [since] we had nowhere else to sleep,” said Robert Dilley, a protester who had slept at McPherson Square since November, explaining the protests’ origins. “[But] it’s turned into a new and creative form of protest.”
Occupiers have alternated their protests between two banks on Vermont Street NW near McPherson Square – a Citibank branch at K Street NW and a Bank of America branch at L Street NW. The protesters are clear about their motivations.
“[The targeted banks] forged foreclosure documents, they perjured themselves in front of Congress, they stole billions of taxpayer dollars,” said Barry Knight, who had been occupying at Freedom Plaza before that site’s eviction. Bank of America, for example, received $45 billion in taxpayer money as part of the TARP program. Under TARP, Citigroup also received about $50 billion, but Bank of America has become a particular target of Occupy protesters. They recently provoked public anger, for example, when it was reported that they paid their CEO Brian Moynihan $7.5 million in a year when stock prices fell by 58%.
“[Bank of America] were what sparked this entire Occupy movement,” said Knight. “Let’s stay on point and keep the pressure on them.”
The protests are a direct message to the banks, according to Haris Ntabakos. “If you are going to take homes from people,” he stated, “[protesters] are going to fight back by sleeping in front of your office so [that] when you get to work you’re going to see what you’ve done.”
Rudy Roberts, an occupier visiting from Orlando, Florida, said he was participating in the sleepful protest “because I feel that money needs to come out of the banks and go into credit unions, so that big banks can’t use that money against us.”
Occupiers value the contact with passers-by that their sidewalk protest provides. “If we get a chance to engage these people in some civil discourse, some dialog, and really talk about the issues, it might change their view,” said Knight. Signs, banners, and tents, a well-known symbol of the Occupy movement, are part of that discourse. Protesters are using signs such as “the ATM fee you just paid could have fed a hungry child” to spread their message on the issue.
The seed of the idea for these protests came in early February when the National Park Service began enforcing the regulations banning camping in both McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. Many protesters, some of whom are homeless by choice, were left with nowhere to sleep. As a solution, several McPherson Square protesters decided to move tents to a public sidewalk on 14th Street NW each evening. They would then sleep through the night and return the tents to the park in the morning.
The occupiers studied Washington D.C. ordinances and found none prohibiting sleeping on sidewalks, said Dilley. On the night of April 3, a small group of occupiers from both camps, at the urging of Dilley and Ntabakos, slept in front of the Citibank branch facing McPherson Square. What began as a “targeted occupation” became their “sleepful protest.” The name comes from a riffing off the common Occupy chant of “this is a peaceful protest!”
That first night, a security guard threatened to return to the scene with friends to assault the “sleepful protesters”, according to several occupiers who slept out that night. The protesters said they spoke to two nearby Metropolitan Police officers, who informed them that they were not breaking the law and who spoke to the security guard. Further heated exchanges with the same security guard the next morning were again followed by reassurances from police that the protesters were well within their rights.
Despite these initial assurances, occupiers have met with some resistance from the authorities. On the morning of April 10, two occupiers, including Ntabakos, were arrested in front of the Bank of America for “obstructing a sidewalk.”
Even after this setback, Dilley is confident the “sleepful protest” will continue. “We will sleep until the public wakes up,” he said.
Many of the involved protesters agreed that the solidarity the “sleepful protest” has built between the once separate Occupy encampments in D.C. has been an added bonus. Occupiers from both Freedom Plaza and McPherson square have been cheek-by-jowl on the sidewalk nightly and are looking forward to the planned merger of both camps.
Some see the Sleepful Protest as a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. “I don’t know if there’s a successful protest strategy,” said Hopper, who declined to giver her last name. “Until we demonstrate that we have power in some real way we’re going to keep being ignored…it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, it just means we’re going to have to do more eventually.” She added, “I choose to sleep on the sidewalk anyway, [so] I might as well make it meaningful.”
As of this writing, “sleepful protests” have, according to Facebook and Twitter updates, begun in Austin, Orlando, Philadelphia, and New York.