The scene was more or less what I'd expected: lots of tents, lots of animated conversations among bohemian types who hadn't had enough sleep. But something was missing.
"I didn't hear any drumming," I remarked as Robert Brune and I made the drive back to Columbia from Washington, where he'd just given me the nickel tour of the Occupy D.C. encampment on McPherson Square.
"Yeah, I think some people had their fill of the drumming," he replied.
After all, he explained, when you're only getting three or four hours sleep a night because you're in a tent alongside a busy city street, it's important to grab a few winks during any daylight down time. That's hard to do when, on top of the traffic noise, there's a constant, rhythmic pounding. So the occupiers reached a consensus to restrict percussive activities to certain hours in the evenings.
That's how the Occupy folks do everything, of course, by consensus. The nominally leaderless, seemingly spontaneous Occupy movement has drawn criticism from the right, left and center for not having a clear agenda. That's just one thing that separates them from the lobbyists on K Street, which runs alongside McPherson Square.
Their broader message is pretty plain, though: Big money has gamed the system, and the rest of us — the 99 percent, as they put it — have suffered for it. They want reforms on Wall Street and in Washington.
Any number of activists have beaten that particular drum, but the Occupy people have taken it up a notch with '60s-style sit-ins updated to include tweets and video journals posted on the Web. I saw one guy wheeling a stroller with a laptop mounted with a webcam, ready to record the day's events. The activists were preparing to march that afternoon with the Service Employees International Union across the Key Bridge to call for increased investment in crumbling infrastructure.
By becoming a constant presence instead of a one-day rally, Brune says, Occupy might break mainstream media of their short attention span, "before it's on to abortion and on to Solyndra and on to the next thing."
Brune, who lives in Long Reach, connected with the movement through Facebook. He makes his living doing framing and drywall work on a contract basis, but it's getting tougher all the time. "This year has been the worst," he said.
He's pinching his pennies while executives in too-big-to-fail investment firms get monster bonuses and golden parachutes. His soft-spoken demeanor belies it, but he's angry.
In 2008, Brune volunteered for Barack Obama's campaign, but he says the president has abandoned his pledge to purge Washington of influence-peddling.
"McCain and Obama promised to fix the system," he said. "And this is where the press keeps missing [the point of the Occupy movement]. The relationship between lobbyists and government needs to be more tightly regulated."
Even conservatives who generally disdain government regulation can appreciate that when they look at what's happened to their 401(k) plans, he added.
The Occupy demographic tends to skew younger, but when the movement set up shop in D.C. in October, the 46-year-old Brune spent a week living in a tent there.
"Mentally and phyically, it was completely exhausting," he said.
Brune is no longer camping out, but he still goes down to Washington when he can to help the cause. He's acted as a liaison between McPherson Square and a second D.C. encampment, as well as the Occupy Baltimore group. While we were in Washington last Thursday he corralled some people to put together the day's Web video.
The Occupy movement has started to hit a rough patch. The day before my visit to McPherson Square, the original Occupy Wall Street group got tossed out of their digs in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Relations between Occupy D.C. and police have been amicable — and figure to remain so as long as the activists continue to toe the line of nonviolence — but Thursday's damp chill reminded anyone who might have forgotten that winter is coming to Washington.
Brune, though, says he is confident that the protesters will stick it out for as long as it takes.
"These people aren't going anywhere."