WASHINGTON — The folk-rocker Jackson Browne showed up on Freedom Plaza here to perform for the Occupy D.C. protesters. He played five political tunes but left out the one most relevant to the protest movement: “Running on Empty.”
Two months ago, there was hope that the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots could be the start of political counterweight to the tea party. But this never happened, and any last chance of it ended when New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg closed the encampment in lower Manhattan.
Nationwide, the movement lost its idealistic roots amid reports of accidental deaths, drug overdoses and scattered violence. In Washington over the weekend, 31 demonstrators in McPherson Square, a previously peaceful encampment, were arrested in a standoff with police.
In nearby Freedom Plaza, there are fewer tents than there were earlier in fall — and it wasn’t exactly booming then. When Browne, the 63-year-old singer and activist, walked to the microphones, there were all of 125 people to listen to the performance, including a media pack of about 40.
“You are the 99 percent!” Browne, in leather jacket, blue jeans and Salomon athletic shoes, told the modest crowd. “This is what democracy looks like.”
But this is not what a mass movement looks like.
Browne, who gave the world “Somebody’s Baby” and “Take It Easy” in addition to “Running on Empty,” deserves credit for encouraging the demonstrators in New York and Washington. The demonstrators in Washington deserve credit for maintaining their dedication even as other encampments have shriveled or been disbanded.
But it looks more and more like a lost cause, as the masses fail to mobilize behind the Occupy activists. After Browne’s performance on the plaza, I asked the singer about the failure of the movement to ignite. “I see this encampment lasting through the winter, and I see the movement playing a role in the coming election,” he said, predicting that the political parties would grapple “with a growing people’s movement.”
Is he surprised more people aren’t angry? “I think people are very angry,” he fired back. “How angry people are is not really carried by the mainstream media.”
Hey. Take it easy.
No doubt people are angry — as well they should be after the high unemployment and low corporate responsibility of the last few years. But for whatever reason, they aren’t taking to the streets to join the demonstrators.
Browne did his musical best to encourage the Occupiers. He talked about how, on his recent tour, he dedicated “certain songs to those people occupying America, and the place always explodes. At least the kind of people who would come to see me are always with you.”
Facing the White House and the Treasury, his back to the Capitol and a Christmas tree that protesters made from plastic bags and water bottles, he played “Casino Nation,” “Far from the Arms of Hunger” (“more of a prayer than a song”), and “Lives in the Balance” (“one reviewer said it’s more of a speech than a song”). He had some lyrics written on a yellow legal pad on the ground — but not all the lyrics. Singing “For America,” he drew a blank midway through.
“Ah, that’s the wrong part of the song,” he said. “Sorry.” He kept strumming. “It’s just a small part of the song but if you don’t have that part you can’t go on.”
A woman from the audience piped up with the missing phrase: “Reap what we have sown!”
“Oh yeah, yeah yeah,” Browne said, resuming. At another point, he had to stop to tune the guitar. “I’m sorry, I can’t really bring myself to sing this song with a guitar this out of tune,” he said, blaming a balky electronic tuner. “It’s the weather, you know.”
Like its musical leader, the protest movement is also searching for the right notes. “It remains to be seen what happens,” Browne said in his soft, mellow baritone. He said he “always wondered what it would take to get people into the streets the way they go into the streets in other countries.”
A German reporter asked Browne if he thought the Occupy movement needed its own song. “You don’t need a new song for the movement,” he said. “It’s got plenty of songs. It just needs people to show up and sing.”
He’s right. But where are they?