With their patchwork of colorful tents and tarps, neo-hippie residents and rallying cries about corporate and government greed, the two Occupy D.C. camps look and sound almost identical to outsiders.
But a possible consolidation of the related movements at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza reveals divisions in the protest camps just blocks away from one another, with each side claiming it represents the 99 percent.
For the past week, organizers have issued letters and statements from both locations, subtly and not-so-subtly resisting a proposal by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray that the National Park Service that they combine the camps at Freedom Plaza. The move, the mayor says, would allow for the cleanup of McPherson Square, which local officials have criticized for its unsanitary conditions and its burgeoning rat population.
McPherson Square protesters were quick to say they want to stay put.
“We like our rats better than we like the rats over there,” said McPherson Square occupier Tracy Keith. Good-natured about the city’s complaints of unhealthy living conditions at the Northwest park, Mr. Keith said protesters living in McPherson “like Freedom Plaza, but we have our space here.”
Similarly, Freedom Plaza demonstrators have bristled at suggestions the groups share space.
“There’s different decision-making systems and different types of committees” in the camps, said a Freedom Plaza occupier who identifies himself only as Casey. “What might be ‘media’ to us, is ‘outreach’ to them.”
Both camps were established in early October, about a month after the Occupy Wall Street movement took root in a Lower Manhattan park in New York City.
Days after the first tents were pitched at McPherson Square on Oct. 6, the “October 2001/Stop the Machine” rally set down in Freedom Plaza, the result, organizers said, of months of planning to protest the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.
Unlike the Occupy D.C. camp, which did not obtain a permit, the Freedom Plaza occupiers secured a four-month permit from the National Park Service and were recently granted a new one through Feb. 28.
Eventually, the Freedom Plaza group adopted the “Occupy” moniker, and its members have participated in a number of rallies led by McPherson campers.
Former Occupy Pittsburgh member Taylor Hall, 22, said that when he arrived in the District, he joined the Freedom Plaza camp because “it was more peaceful” than the McPherson Square location.
To be sure, the McPherson camp has been more raucous, most notably on Dec. 4, when members essentially tried to erect a one-room, wood-framed building, then refused to dismantle it when police arrived, resulting in more than a dozen arrests. About 100 people associated with the site have been arrested in the past three months.
Fellow Occupier Matthew Michel, 28, also from Pittsburgh, said he spent time at the McPherson site and noticed a difference in the “human dynamic” as well as a “generational gap” between the park’s camp and the one at the plaza.
Throughout autumn, both camps fluctuated in size and scope. At McPherson Square, as many as 250 people were sleeping in tents and temporary shelters; at Freedom Plaza, a full-scale kitchen and medical tent kept protesters fed and healthy.
The numbers at Freedom Plaza has dropped to about 50; about 100 people are at McPherson, where officials have closed the kitchen amid complaints that it was unsanitary and the camp was infested with rats.
Mr. Gray on Jan. 12 sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis that outlines health and winter-related concerns about the McPherson camp.
Within days, missives flew from the camps, one from Freedom Plaza organizers Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese that said combining the camps would “present some challenges,” not the least of which would be keeping the peace and feeding more people.
“The two camps have different personalities, and we do not want to lose the personality of Freedom Plaza,” the Freedom Plaza statement said.
McPherson organizers also said in a statement that joining the Freedom Plaza camp was less than an ideal solution.
“Rats and sanitation are citywide problems, and Occupy D.C. will be happy to resolve them in our camp,” organizers said.
While neither group is keen on sharing space, both have pledged to work together.
Occupiers in Freedom Plaza posted a letter on their website that said the camp would support McPherson protesters “100 percent” if they were evicted. They also rejected what they described as attempts “to foster division within the Occupy movement or between actual Occupy encampments like Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square.”
“As always, individuals committed to the Occupy movement will be welcome in Freedom Plaza with open arms,” they said in a statement.