Donated office space enables Occupy DC organizing
|May 29, 2012||Posted by Karina Stenquist under Featured, News, Print Issues, Stories, Volume 2, Issue 4 (July/August 2012)|
After months of coordination, Occupy DC moved into their own dedicated office space in early May. The space, owned by the Institute for Policy Studies, is located in a building downtown, three blocks from the original McPherson Square encampment, in early May. IPS’ offices are on the same floor, and it is being rented on behalf of the occupiers by the Service Employees International Union, for six months.
Occupiers first approached the SEIU in November and began talks about how the union might best be able to support Occupy DC. In the end, the SEIU decided that paying the $3,450 a month rent for a three-room office space on 16th Street NW was best. “[The union] didn’t want to get involved in a way that will hurt Occupy,” said Eric Lotke, who has been an occupier since early on last fall. He works for the SEIU, but recognized that some within Occupy were cautious or even hostile about unions. “The question was, how do we work together to promote our mutual interests while maintaining our separate identities?”
Since the eviction of the McPherson Square camp, many working groups have coalesced around certain issues. As these groups grew in numbers and ambitions, the need for the organizing infrastructure of an office, like wi-fi connections, filing space, and conference rooms, became more pronounced.
“The people who have lasted the seven months since Occupy DC started have been meeting in scattered groups, but now can be concentrated as they were when we first began at McPherson,” said Kyle Szlosek, one of the occupiers who was heavily involved in the meetings about the space.
“It’s essential to have a place, to have somewhere to go to organize” said Dan Newell, an occupier who came from Ann Arbor, Mich., who also sees the space as addressing security concerns about McPherson Square. “Some people complained it wasn’t safe for them in the park at certain times,” he said. “[The office] is a good safe place for people to come.”
“I had my misgivings,” said Sam Dukore, a member of the Action Committee, which coordinates protest actions, and is one of the groups now using the office space. “I thought the money could be better spent on collective housing,” said Dukore, explaining that a multi-use space could address both office concerns and housing needs. But the space does mean that the action committee no longer has to meet in cafes, bars, or private homes, which may be having a positive effect on attendance, said Dukore.
“It’s increased participation in committees, if only because it’s become a sort of congregation point like the park was,” said Dukore about the effect he has observed. “[People] are working here and they see ‘Hey! There’s a committee meeting, I’ll check it out.’”
The agreement between Occupy DC and the SEIU raised some eyebrows. Pundits have wondered if the funding meant that the union was trying to get Occupy DC to conform to its agenda. Both groups, however, state that autonomy has been guaranteed.
“There are no strings, no expectations, it’s for the occupiers and the important work occupiers are doing,” said Lotke.
“You cannot control an autonomous group,” said Szlosek, referring to the leaderless, horizontal way occupiers organize themselves. “[We] offered to report back to SEIU our plans and operating procedures for the office use, but they didn’t need it because they trusted us to handle it on our own.”
News outlets have additionally made much of the fact that the six-month lease expires on Election Day in November. “If we’d all gotten our act together a month ago, it would’ve ended in October,” said Lotke, explaining that a half-year lease is fairly typical. “None of us even noticed it was Election Day until [a story] came out [in The Examiner],” said Lotke.
The six-month lease, according to Lotke, is a “test drive.” There is an expectation of a six month renewal when the initial period is up. “In the end, it’s better for everybody if the country moves in the direction Occupy is trying to move it. And especially it’s better for working people…We all want to address the interests of the working class and the 99%.”
As for the involvement of the Institute for Policy Studies as the provider of the space goes, those involved in negotiations say IPS was a natural partner. Since the start of the Occupy DC camp last fall, IPS and Occupy DC have collaborated frequently, including letting occupiers use spaces in their own offices for meetings.
Initial opening hours for the space are 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and it will be manned by a group of volunteers, styling themselves the “circle of trust” or “key holders.” All visitors are asked to sign in and a preliminary code of conduct is posted on the wall. The code asks occupiers to refrain from smoking, sleeping, storing personal belongings, and, somewhat paradoxically, “occupying,” among other things.
The ethic forming around the use of the space reflects the emphasis on horizontal organization seen so far in much of the Occupy movement’s efforts. “Everyone, every committee has equal access,” said Szlosek. “No one has complete control of the space.”
The reception table is full of pamphlets, fliers, and information from occupiers and organizers who see the potential of the space for both networking within the Occupy DC community and outreach to the wider activist community.
“The potential is that this space could be used to grow the movement and completely change the game by interlinking all the occupies with a media hub,” said Slozek about his hopes for the space. “We could spread our message and create big picture goals.”
[Full disclosure, Karina Stenquist is a “key holder”, and the D.C. Mic Check uses this office space]