Commentary: Occupy Washington fights the cold

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2012 

Early in the pre-dawn hours of Jan 5, Park Police went from tent to tent in the freezing night to wake up sleeping Occupy Washington protestors at Freedom Plaza, a block away from the White House. But they were not about to evict the 100 people camping there for three months hoping to "get big money out of politics" as they say.

Instead, on the coldest night of the winter to date, with temperatures down in the low teens, the police were making sure that no one died of hypothermia in the freezing night.

"We were glad they came – we couldn't have woken everyone up," said Joe Bieber, 39, one of the Occupy leaders at the site.

The police came at 1 a.m. and then returned at 4 a.m., the depths of the cold, to be sure everyone could respond to their questions and was not going into life-threatening hypothermia.

The scores of tents are pitched either on small grassy patches, allowing tent stakes to be driven into the earth that can resist the sharp winds off the Potomac River nearby; or else they are pitched on the stone plaza etched with saying of famous Americans. These tents are held down by sandbags or water jugs. But the winds proved too strong and the medical tent, marked with its red cross, was lying upside down on the plaza after wind gusts lifted it up, carried it over several smaller tents, and smashed it down on the cold stone.

A handful of Occupy movement protestors were gathered in the gloom of their dark green warming tent, where a kerosene heater provides comfort for those unable to take the constant exposure to the cold days of January. A second warming tent is under construction.

"We're not going anywhere," said Bieber, a carpenter from Philadelphia.

The campers have extended their federal permit for another two months and hope to remain a presence in the city – even though some have moved into shelters, churches or other buildings to escape the cold.

A friendly labor union, the Communications Workers of America, has allowed the protestors to take showers in their building. Portable outdoor toilets have been set up for the protestors. Donations of food and cash flow in hourly.

Even so, one camper said to another that her pants no longer stayed up, she had lost so much weight. Her friend said he too had been losing a lot of weight.

A Christmas tree stands in the cold beside a tent as do lawn chairs. Some people are fluffing their sleeping bags and blankets outside and others man the information, medical and kitchen tents.

“Your mother doesn’t Occupy here so clean up after yourself,” reads a sign on a board by the information tent, which lists upcoming marches, meetings and activities.

Another huge sign boasts that Time magazine chose the protestor as the person of the year.

A second encampment independent of the Freedom Plaza village has sprung up at McPherson Square a few blocks away. Here in the gathering gloom of a wintery afternoon, hundreds of well-dressed and fast walking federal office workers rush along cement walkways between the dozens of tents pitched on the lawns.

One tent hosts the People’s Library. Another lists the “guidelines” drawn up by the democratic General Assembly. The first one is “Respect each other’s stuff and space.” The second calls for “non-violence.”

Sarah Anderson, 29, who is sitting in the information tent, admits there have been some petty thefts at the protest site but, as she dig into a steaming hot meal of beef, rice and vegetables, she says it’s getting better.

The site decided to shut down its kitchen that day to clean it up after inspectors found rats. But food keeps flowing to the largely youthful campers.

One young office worker walking briskly through the camp – so briskly that she asked a reporter to rush alongside her as she spoke, offered her opinion of the jobless campers all around her.

“I think they are really brave and I approve and admire what they are doing,” she said.”

All Washingtonians are not so kind. Anderson said that on weekends, when the clubs close, sometimes drunk people drive by shouting insults such as “get a job dirty hippies.” Or they try to pick fights. Both sites have their own quasi-security groups that try to defuse problems before they get violent. They are called “de-escalation teams.”

Certainly, some of the people at the sites seem to be homeless and possibly mal-adjusted. They have all formed a community however that looks out of the least of their fellow members.

Frosty, a 57 year old homeless veteran and former carnival worker, said that there are now over 2,000 Occupy encampments around the world. Many have local issues that motivate them. The Washington groups are focused on getting money out of politics and forcing corporations and the top one percent to pay more taxes. Frosty said he hoped the $100 billion saved by ending the war in Iraq would go to help people improve their education.

The movement is focused on a protest march Jan 17 to welcome Congress back from its vacation. Some 5,000 people have emailed that they intend to participate in that march.

But on Jan 5, as the darkness began to fall at five p.m., a handful of protestors hoisted their signs, tightened their scarves and hats, and marched into the busy crowds shouting out their slogans aimed at creating what they see as a more just, equitable society.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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