“WE! ARE! THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT!”
“WE! ARE! THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT!”
The rhythmic chant, kept in time by the accompaniment of a drummer, eventually deteriorated into chaotic shouting as the mob crowded around the entrance to the Washington Convention Center. A young woman held aloft her homemade 11-by-17-inch sign: “OCCUPY” with three red stars, a crude simulation of the District of Columbia flag. Flashes from dozens of digital cameras intermittently illuminated the frenzied scene by the glass doors, which were guarded by Metropolitan Police officers attempting to prevent the Occupy DC protesters from shoving their way inside.
“Peaceful! Peaceful!” some of the mob members shouted, as the self-declared “99 percent” were clearly on the verge of a full-scale riot Friday night outside the venue where the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Foundation was holding its annual Defending the American Dream Summit. Before the evening was over, elderly women attending the “Tribute to Ronald Reagan” dinner would be shoved to the ground and three Occupiers would be struck by a car, but those incidents transpired later, after the protesters attempted to storm the doors of the Convention Center.
This onrush was not spontaneous. This allegedly “leaderless” movement indeed has de facto leaders, and one of them had given the signal for this sudden — but obviously pre-planned — mass assault on the venue of the AFP Foundation event. Nor was the target of the mob’s attack chosen at random. AFP is one of several free-market organizations that have received contributions from Charles and David Koch, the energy industry moguls who have been widely demonized as funders of the Tea Party movement and other activism that liberals would categorize as part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Since September, the mainstream media have portrayed the “Occupy” protests as analogous to the Tea Party and here — on the plaza outside the Convention Center in downtown D.C. — the two movements were quite literally face-to-face, a stunning study in contrasts.
Twenty minutes before the mob rushed the doors, I had been inside enjoying dinner at a table near the rear of the cavernous main ballroom on the third floor, listening to a speech by Andrew Napolitano, the former New Jersey judge turned Fox News personality. Seated with me at Table 137 were two Pennsylvania women, Jennifer Stefano and Katy Abrams, who are leaders of their state’s AFP chapter. Both Stefano and Abrams were stay-at-home moms who joined the Tea Party movement in 2009 and their emergence as influential volunteer activists soon brought them to the attention of AFP. These Pennsylvania housewives are classic examples of how AFP has helped turn the Tea Party movement into an effective political force: Identifying leaders, providing training, funding and other organizational resources, and connecting these scattered citizens into a cohesive nationwide network of citizen-activists. For these grassroots foot soldiers of the Tea Party, the annual Defending the American Dream Summit in D.C. is a chance to learn and teach, to communicate and socialize, and the “Tribute to Ronald Reagan” dinner is a can’t-miss-it celebration of their common cause.
We were finishing our entrée — roast chicken with rice and vegetables — at Table 137 while Napolitano was on the distant stage discussing infringements of Fourth Amendment rights under the USA Patriot Act. The judge’s libertarian dissertation caused me to remark to my tablemates that Napolitano’s philosophy seemed influenced by Murray Rothbard. Just then, at a table some 70 feet nearer the stage, a man suddenly stood up and began shouting. Security personnel converged on the obstreperous protester, and I excused myself from dinner, regretting the necessity to pursue my journalistic craft. The disrupter turned out to be Ricky Lehner, a 23-year-old member of Occupy DC’s “Action Committee” who, in an interview with the Washington Post three weeks earlier, had said of the demonstrators encamped in McPherson Square: “We’re trying to get a bit more organized.” Given his leadership role and his avowed purpose of organizing the protests, Lehner’s disruption at the AFP Reagan dinner was obviously planned, rather than being a spontaneous response to anything Napolitano had said. The police dragged Lehner out of the ballroom and I followed them out. Lehner lay prostrate while the police patted him down and emptied his pockets. Other reporters, some of them with cameras, witnessed the scene as the police pulled from under Lehner’s suit jacket a folded white banner he had never gotten a chance to unfurl. We couldn’t see what was written on the banner, but we heard Lehner quietly repeating like a mantra, “I did not consent to this search,” as if disturbing the peace at such an event did not constitute reasonable grounds for the police to make sure he was not armed. Lehner was not handcuffed or brutalized, but was escorted from the premises.
To one of the AFP staffers standing nearby I joked that it would have been nice if the protester had waited until we’d all finished our entrées. His disruption was not much of a story. Being credentialed as a blogger for the event did not require me to report such a trivial incident. Having covered the speeches that afternoon by Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, I figured I’d already done the journalistic minimum necessary to justify my free dinner. So I decided to go outside for a post-prandial smoke, intending to return later for dessert and coffee. As soon as I went out the front door, however, it was evident that an entirely different story was taking place on the streets around the Convention Center. Police cars with their lights flashing had cordoned off Mount Vernon Place, establishing a security perimeter. The protesters had erected a giant inflatable figure emblazoned with the slogan: “Koch Bros.: Fat Cats for Prosperity.” Walking down to the corner, I saw that the intersection of 7th Street and New York Avenue was “occupied” by a sit-in protest of sorts. A couple of young reporters — Chris Moody of Yahoo News and Michelle Fields of the Daily Caller — were standing next to the police cars observing the spectacle. The Occupiers were doing a ritual they call “mike check,” in which individuals recite their grievances in call-and-response fashion, the crowd loudly parroting the speaker’s words. A bearded fellow recounted how, at age 37, his application for Social Security disability benefits had been rejected — his disability was presumably psychiatric in nature — and his family kicked him out. He ended his recitation with an obscene remark about his parents, which the crowd obediently echoed in unison. To the two young reporters standing nearby, I was muttering something sarcastic about this deranged idiot’s self-pitying victimhood when our conversation was interrupted by a shout from the crowd: “Road trip!”
This seems to have been a pre-determined code signal for the pre-planned assault on the Convention Center, and the tatterdemalion hippie horde went rushing past us, hell-bent on shoving their way through the front doors. Reaching into my coat pocket, I pulled out my small digital camera and recorded video of the scene. At first, police held the doors open to continue admitting guests of the AFP event while physically blocking the Occupy mob. That response quickly became problematic after the crowd surged forward, however, and the doors were closed to everyone — including me, despite the official credential hanging from a green lanyard around my neck. Somehow, I managed to work my way through the compressed throng and found my way to one of the glass doors. Several of the protesters around me began pounding on the glass, and I held my credential up so that the police and AFP personnel inside could see that a “friendly” was trapped among the hostile Occupiers. But the people inside just shook their heads: No chance of my being rescued at that point, so I resolved to make the best of it.
Turning around, I saw that I wasn’t the only friendly stuck there amid the menacing mob. Right next to me, in fact, was a picturesque tableau and I switched my camera from video to photo mode to capture the scene: A policeman at the door confronting a couple of AFP activists from Michigan who smiled as they displayed their event credentials while, standing to their right, the Daily Caller reporter looked out with a concerned expression at the surrounding crowd of angry protesters. None of us — not the policeman, not the Michigan couple, not the Daily Caller reporter and certainly not me — had expected to find ourselves swarmed like this. Yet here we were, like frontiersmen at an outpost besieged by savages, wondering when the cavalry would arrive.
Within a few minutes, the standoff was stabilized long enough for the doors to be opened and admit those of us with credentials, and I made my way upstairs, cursing my ill fortune. Having accidentally been on the scene when news happened, I now felt obligated to report it — good-bye, coffee and dessert! Immediately, I posted a bulletin on my blog (“I was in the middle of the scrum of smelly hippies when they stormed the doors”) and quickly updated to add videos and photos. By the time I went back outside to get more video (of protesters chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”), more news had happened: Old ladies were shoved to the ground, and a silver luxury car — driven by a resident of neighboring Prince Georges County, Maryland, who had no connection to the AFP event — struck three protesters blocking an intersection. After I’d finished filing my online updates, I packed up my laptop computer and headed over to the Renaissance Hotel, where most of the AFP summit attendees were staying. One of my friends, a professional Republican operative, bought me a beer at the lobby bar and laughed as he told how he’d been standing in front of the Convention Center talking to the protesters when David Koch exited the Reagan dinner. My friend recognized Koch, but said nothing while the allegedly evil billionaire passed unrecognized through the crowd. It was only after Koch was gone that my friend told the Occupiers that they’d just missed the villain whose presence at the Convention Center had inspired all the chaos. My Republican friend summarized his opinion of the mob: “I’ve never seen so many losers in my life.” And another Republican, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had said in his speech at the AFP summit, “Barack Obama owns the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. It would not have happened but for his class warfare.”
Driving home Saturday morning, I thumbed through the stack of business cards I’d collected during the AFP event and saw the card of Michelle Fields, the Daily Caller reporter who had shared my experience of being trapped among the clamoring horde. I called and asked her if she’d felt the same sense of menace that had struck me at that moment. Indeed she had, and worse. Fields explained how she’d spent three hours Friday being stalked and harassed while attempting to cover the Occupy DC demonstrations. “I actually did not feel comfortable, because at one point there were a whole group of men surrounding me saying, ‘F—Michelle Fields,'” she told me. Her video of the event provided abundant proof of the obscene hostility she endured Friday. Her experience fit an emerging narrative of the six-week old movement, which has been plagued by sexual assault and other outbreaks of criminality, including one Occupier arrested for arson in Colorado. The Occupy movement’s claim to represent the economic grievances of the American majority was belied by their thuggish behavior. Their convergence at the AFP event only accentuated the contrast between the protest mob’s barbarism and the civilized behavior of their targets. The Tea Party represents the law-abiding, tax-paying, middle-class mainstream while Occupy DC represents an unpopular radical fringe. Despite their chants, the Occupiers are not the 99 percent, and perhaps not even 9 percent. In a nation of 300 million people, however, even an estimate of 0.9 percent would provide the leaders of the mob with 2.7 million witless savages to follow them lemming-like off a cliff and into the abyss of anarchy, which is all they deserve to occupy.