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Washington Struggles to Keep Occupiers Straight

With so many liberal protesters waving signs in the streets of Washington, D.C., it’s not surprising that many news reports have muddled who is in charge of what.

But activists camping out in McPherson Square with the Occupy DC movement want to make one thing perfectly clear: Occupy DC has nothing to do with a separate set of demonstrations going on at Freedom Plaza. That campout, which has also featured anti-corporate slogans, was mounted by an unrelated group of activists who call themselves the “October 2011 Movement.”

It’s easy to see how reporters or even casual observers might mix up the two. Over at Occupy DC, an outgrowth of the now national Occupy Wall Street movement, an eclectic band of grass-roots activists is protesting corporate greed and unrestricted political money.

At Freedom Plaza, an equally eclectic group of liberal activists has launched a protest that was six months in the making around the slogan: “Stop the Machine! Create a New World!” Occupy DC organizers convened a special meeting to tackle whether they should try to team up with the Freedom Plaza folks, but decided against it, said Paul Taylor, an unofficial spokesman for Occupy DC — a group which emphasizes that it has no official spokesmen.

“Stop the Machine was very top down,” said Taylor. “We at Occupy DC and the other Occupy movements are very bottom up.”

Taylor stressed that Occupy DC participants have much in common with the Freedom Plaza protesters, but noted: “We didn’t want to be associated with any political organization or established organizations, because we are very broad in our scope.”

On Friday, Occupy DC organizers went so far as to send out a press release stressing that their group “is not the same as the October 2011/Stop the Machine rally that is taking place at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C.” The release went on to state: “We are a spontaneous upwelling of unrest and frustration, rather than an organization put together with months of fundraising support, steering committees and professional activists.”

The release followed numerous press reports that described Occupy DC protesters rallying at Freedom Plaza and marching to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and down K Street. In fact, said Taylor, Occupy DC went over to the Newseum to rally outside the Washington Ideas Forum organized there in conjunction with The Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute. October 2011 Movement protesters were the ones who went to the Chamber and K Street, he said.

October 2011 Movement organizer Margaret Flowers said that it was sheer coincidence that the two groups came to Washington at the same time. The October 2011 Movement is also very bottom-up and consensus-driven, she said, but represents months of planning by seasoned environmental, social justice and peace activists, and is endorsed by 150 progressive organizations. That helps explain why the group’s crowds have been much bigger, swelling to more than 1,000. The Occupy DC crowds have reached the low hundreds at most.

“We’re experienced organizers,” said Flowers. “We wanted to create a structure.” She added that her group sent Occupy Wall Street a letter of solidarity early on, and that activists from the October 2011 Movement are eager to work with that movement.

“We feel that we really share a common goal and vision and want to see a participatory democracy that benefits human needs,” she said. “And we’re trying to find ways to work together without stepping on their process.”

The complicated relationship between the groups underscores the challenge that faces liberal organizers of all stripes, including labor leaders and even Democratic lawmakers who have sought to tap the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots.

“I don’t have a problem with them endorsing and embracing our message,” said Taylor, of recent labor union endorsements. “But we are aware of being co-opted. And of course, we don’t want that to happen, because we’re trying to build broad consensus.”

Whoever is organizing them, the groups are on the same schedule. Asked when the October 2011 Movement planned to leave Freedom Plaza, Flowers said: “We’re not sure. It depends on how long the people that are here feel we need to be here.”

Similarly, Taylor said the Occupy DC campout has no end date: “The whole point of occupying a space is not to leave it.”

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