After bringing their grievances to the doors of Congress on Tuesday, protesters from across the nation plan to take aim at Washington's other vilified power brokers: lobbyists.
Flocks of community activists, unemployed protesters, union members and Occupy Wall Street participants have choked K Street, which is home to the lobbying arms of many large corporations and industries. Police have blocked off the street at one of the busiest intersections in the city and have arrested some protesters.
Protesters are targeting the offices of General Electric, Verizon, Capitol Tax Partners, the American Bankers Association and the lobbying firm Clark Lytle & Geduldig. Last month, Reuters reported that Clark Lytle, which lobbies on behalf of the financial industry, urged the American Bankers Association to conduct opposition research against Occupy protesters, but the recommendation wasn't acted on.
Borrowing from the Occupy rhetoric, protesters decried the influence of money in politics. In a written statement, organizers vowed to "make Wall Street pay" for enriching the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and to "track down those responsible for crashing the economy and causing millions of 99%-ers to lose their jobs and homes — while failing to pay their fair share of taxes."
The demonstration is part of "Take Back the Capitol," a weeklong campaign in Washington to advocate for job creation, the extension of unemployment benefits and other economic policies. Following months of protests in other cities mainly against financial institutions, the gathering is the first to bring together a wide range of progressive, labor and Occupy groups to target Washington's political class.
Some news reports have credited Occupy Wall Street as the organizer. Many Occupy followers are participating, but the group behind it is the American Dream Movement, which partnered with progressive organizations such as MoveOn.org and Rebuild the Dream, and major labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union and AFL-CIO.
As police in various cities across the country dismantle the remaining Occupy Wall Street camps — they dismantled tents in San Francisco in a raid early Wednesday morning — protesters are grappling with the question of where the movement should go next. The collaboration with traditionally left-leaning groups this week in Washington is one path forward.
Both American Dream and Occupy leaders say they are not leading politically partisan movements, and have refuted speculation that their work might shift to political activism for the 2012 elections, particularly in favor of Democratic candidates. Yet several of the participating groups, from MoveOn.org to the unions, are heavily involved with the Democratic Party.
And among participants in the week's first protest — sit-ins outside congressional members' offices on Tuesday — the pull to get involved in the 2012 elections was strong. A number of them say they are motivated in part by their anger at Republican-led movements in various states to weaken collective bargaining, an effort that succeeded in Wisconsin earlier this year.
Anger Over Collective Bargaining
"Before Feb. 11, I really was not politically involved," says Kelley Albrecht, who traveled from Wisconsin to the nation's capital. On Feb. 11, Wisconsin's governor, Republican Scott Walker, drew national attention by introducing a cost-cutting measure that severely curbed collective bargaining rights for government employees.
"I only voted occasionally. I felt like my vote didn't matter," says Albrecht, 41, whose husband is a union worker. She is unemployed and says Walker's cuts to Medicaid caused two of her sons, ages 10 and 8, to be dropped from the program. "Now, I can see myself getting involved in politics," she says. "We need people to rise up and take a look at what's going on."
Albrecht and her sons were among three busloads of Wisconsin residents who arrived in Washington on Tuesday at 2:30 a.m. Hours later, she and 20 others set off from the National Mall to the office of her representative, Republican Paul Ryan. Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has drawn the ire of Albrecht and other protesters because he favors privatizing Medicare and severely cutting other entitlement programs to eliminate the federal deficit.
As they approached the House office building, they chanted, "Paul Ryan, he's the worst! He puts corporate interests first!"
On the second floor of the Longworth House Office Building, they found Ryan's office door locked and a note posted that read "Please Knock. Only Scheduled Appointments will be admitted today."
Fellow protester Maria Morales knocked and two of Ryan's aides emerged, closing the door behind them as they addressed the crowd.
The aides explained that Ryan was out of town. They said that if the protesters go online and schedule a meeting, "we'll be happy to consider it." The protesters scoffed and, together on cue, sat on the hallway floor, determined to wait until Ryan appeared. Ryan's aides returned to the office, again closing the door behind them. Ryan never showed.
"This is very frustrating," said Morales, an unemployed 68-year-old who recently took in her out-of-work granddaughter and her two children. "We come here all the way from Wisconsin, and they lock the door. Come on."
Throughout Tuesday, demonstrators visited the offices of about 99 House and Senate members, from both parties, and most were refused meetings with lawmakers.
About 25 people from Maryland actually got face time with Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen. He emerged from his office and spoke to the group, telling them he sympathizes with the unemployed.
Other Wisconsin natives sat down with another one of their congressmen, Republican Thomas Petri. They discussed funding for transportation projects, schools and President Obama's jobs bill. But many protesters say they came away unsatisfied.
"Our meeting was so heated up in there," says Robert Townsend, an unemployed 48-year-old from Milwaukee. "We asked him if he would vote for the jobs bill. He was evasive on that. And I asked him, 'Tell me something positive that you're doing for Wisconsin that will put us back to work.' He mentioned something in Oshkosh, but that's mostly for military people. He really didn't have much of an answer. It's like he had no commitment to addressing this problem."
After being out of work for five years, Townsend, who has a college degree and has gotten by on occasional work as a handyman, says he feels desperate. He says he now sees this movement as a step toward becoming a volunteer in some capacity for the 2012 elections.
"If the opportunity presents itself next year, I would definitely like to get involved," he says. "I'll go door to door. Anything I can do to make things happen."
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