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Dec 8, 2011
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The Occupiers

Who are they, what do they want and what’s next?

By Amber Williams

Standing at the bus stop on East Grand Avenue on any given day of the week, one will likely hear an array of contrasting messages coming from interested passersby: “Hell yeah! Keep up the good work!” mixed with, “Go home, hippies! Losers!” And honking “to show your support” as the sign on the corner of Grand and East 14th Street commands.

Standing at the bus stop, it’s clear that not everyone in the city approves of the Occupy Des Moines movement, but not everyone is against it, either. What is not clear is who these people are and why they are camping in tents in Stewart Square Park. One perception is they are homeless bums and hippie punks who need to “take a bath and get a job,” as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said. Another is that the seemingly small crowd doesn’t warrant the level of attention it’s received. And the most common is that they have no real purpose. But from where are these conclusion drawn?

Chris Catron, Rod Niemier and Kaylynn Strain occupy the corner of East 14th Street and Grand Avenue at Stewart Square where the protesters have set up in tents and hoop barns. Photo by Amber Williams

When it comes to the Des Moines occupiers — that is, the approximately 50 people who are currently camping in tents in Stewart Square — the best way to find the truth is to pay them a visit. The answers to the questions of who these people are, why they are there and what they are doing can be found right in the heart of the city in the shadow of Capitol Hill.

The people

Those who drive by the Square and yell at the protestors to “go home” and to “get a job,” likely haven’t actually stopped to talk to the people there. At least four of the occupiers — about 8 percent — are homeless, such as Chris Catron, a 17-year-old misfit who found himself without a place to stay after fighting with his father. Now you can find him sitting on the corner at Stewart Square holding a sign that says, “WE ARE NOT MACHINES, WE ARE NOT CATTLE.” But a policy at the camp insists any homeless occupiers must be active toward the cause or they can’t stay.

Kaylynn Strain set up a first aid tent at the Occupy camp. The supplies are either donated or purchased out-of-pocket. Photo by Amber Williams

The majority say they are employed or are full-time students. Only five or six people can be found occupying the camp during the day, and that’s because they are self-employed, like Archie Horton, 47, who owns Horton Home Repair, and John Frankling, 37, whose handyman service is named after the neighborhood where he lives, Woodland Heights Handy Man Service.

Only a couple say they are unemployed, mostly because they were laid off, their businesses failed or they are retired. Rod Niemier, 50, was a technical writer and is a 10-year veteran with the United States Air Force. His sign reads, “We are the super committee.”

“I don’t think it’s right for anybody with a college degree or anybody who wants to work to be out of a job right now,” Niemier said. “I want to work, and being a technical writer is my expertise, but all the manufacturing jobs no longer exist in the metro area. Most have been farmed out overseas. So now I no longer have a job.”

Kaylynn Strain, 45, could be sleeping every night in her apartment with her cat, but instead she mans the First Aid tent at the camp. She said she’s there not only to aid the injured and ill, but as an activist against any discrimination of the people. And for her infant niece.

“I want her to have access to not only quality education that prepares her for the workforce, but also for a job she is good at and loves and that pays her a proper wage and benefits,” Strain said. “So the next generation can have a good, decent life.”

Many are college students, like Jessica Reznicek, 30, who has an apartment downtown and is set to graduate from Simpson College next year with a history major. She often finds herself winding down in her tent after a long General Assembly meeting with fellow occupiers. Jordan Riley, 19, of Adel, studies anthropology and linguistics at DMACC and hopes to eventually get his doctorate. He admits he could stay with his mom this winter, but he chooses to camp instead.

“This has given a forum to our age where we can actually express and communicate ideas. We don’t have a lot of places where we can do that with fellow citizens,” Riley said. “That’s the number one strength of the whole movement, if nothing else comes out of it, it’s a public forum for the exchange of ideas. There’s no respect on the Internet. Without you being face to face, it’s a lot harder to meet consensus and find compromise between ideas at all.”

The process

John Frankling has become the camp cook. As with most of the supplies at the Occupy camp, the kitchen tent is filled with food and cooking utensils donated by local citizens. Photo by Amber Williams

In the spirit of that face-to-face exchange of ideas, the occupiers were quick to follow the example set by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and form a General Assembly. Anyone is welcome to attend the assembly meetings, which are held at 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, in a hoop barn tent at Stewart Square. Contrary to the stereotype that they’re all “unemployed bums,” the General Assembly is held in the evening and on weekends because most of the occupiers work or go to school during the weekday, they said.

Some 20 to 50 people gather at the meetings, and the operation is organized in a way that no one is to speak over anyone or out of turn, and everyone has a voice to agree or disagree by using specific hand signals. Sometimes this process takes hours, “but this is what democracy looks like,” so goes the chant they favor during protest marches in the streets of Des Moines.

Surrounding the assembly tent are others labeled kitchen, dining room, first aid, free school, media and art, as well 21 individual tents housing one to five people in each, plus one that sleeps as many as 16. Most of their supplies and food are donated by citizens in Des Moines. They use heat lamps for both light and heat, which was approved by the city fire marshal. They run electricity from the park via their weekly permit through the city manager’s office, and they are responsible for waste removal and portable restroom facilities. According to the permit, they are allowed up to 30 tents and as many as 300 people.

“At this point, they’ve been good to work with, and we’ll continue to issue the permit,” said Des Moines Parks and Recreation Director Don Tripp. “We weren’t quite sure how much electricity they’d be using, and neither were they, but I’d say they’re actually paying for the electricity they’re using. They pay for their own portable restrooms, and they’ve kept things tidied up. They’ve hauled out their own trash, and even on the day when it snowed, we drove down there, and they were shoveling the sidewalks. There has been no cost to the parks department.”

The Des Moines Police Department and the Iowa State Patrol both say the occupiers have not accrued any extra costs to the city or taxpayers, although the police department has received a few complaints about the noise from honking cars and barking dogs, according to public information officer Sgt. Chris Scott. Both the local and state police admit if they weren’t monitoring the occupiers their resources could be used elsewhere, but they also say this is part of the job.

“As long as people play by the rules, they have a right to gather and assemble and practice their right to free speech according to the rules we’re governed by,” said Lt. Mark Logsdon of the Iowa State Patrol, who supervises the Division 16 units that patrol the State Capitol.

In all, there have been 34 arrests as a result of the occupation of Stewart Square, Capitol Hill and downtown banks during protest actions. When Occupy Des Moines first began, 32 were arrested for trespassing on the West Terrace of the Capitol; one man was arrested at Stewart Square for interference when he tried to prevent a fellow occupier’s dog from being impounded; and another at Wells Fargo for drug charges and trespassing, according to officials.

“A lot of the arrests made are pre-arranged,” said Scott. “We’ll ask them when they’re going to protest, and is anybody in the group going to be getting arrested, and they’ll tell us who. We want to hold that type of relationship so it’s peaceful, and they are very honest and up front about this.”

The plan

While being arrested is part of the process, according to some occupiers, it’s also part of the plan. Opponents of Occupy Des Moines, however, are critical of this methodology.

“They need a leader and an action plan. I don’t think what they are doing now is having the desired effect,” said Justin Yourison, who attended the first Occupy Iowa general assembly meeting to promote Ron Paul. “I was not alone, but I noticed that some of the people that were harsh to us were still caught in the left/right paradigm. They refused to even listen to anything we had to say because Paul is technically a Republican. I was hoping that, by now, people would realize that the parties are different wings of the same bird.”

But the occupiers say it’s the leaderless element of their movement that make it a democratic one. According to the website, modelled after Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Des Moines is a “people-powered movement against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and [against] the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.”

The occupiers say, as a group, they have no partisan ties. However, a plan was brought to the table to organize a “People’s Caucus” on Dec. 27, which will include the occupation of all the campaign headquarters in Des Moines leading up to, and including, Iowa Caucus night, on Jan. 3. The group was quick to come to a consensus that the Iowa Caucus was an opportunity they could not miss for getting their voices heard by the candidates. Occupy Des Moines brought the idea to most of the Occupations throughout the Midwest, including the mother of them all, Occupy Wall Street.

As a group, they drafted a “statement of purpose” that reads: “In solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Des Moines issues a call to action to people around the planet. We are excited to announce the First in the Nation Caucus Occupation. This winter, presidential campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, and political events throughout the state will be occupied. Occupy Des Moines will not interfere with or disrupt caucus voting on Jan 3. We are not targeting voters.

“For too long, greedy corporations and corrupted politicians have dictated public policy and political interests on a global scale. Although these corporations and moneyed interests have vast capital resources, now every dollar belonging to the 1 percent shall be countered by a voice. An individual. One of the 99 percent.

“We demand our grievances no longer be ignored.”

In addition to getting numerous other Occupy movements on board with the First in the Nation Caucus Occupation on Dec. 1, Occupy Des Moines also extended official invitations to the recently evicted Occupiers of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and the nation.

“Bring your voices to the People’s Caucus on Dec. 27,” the invitation states. “Draft a resolution from your home occupation about the issues that matter most to the 99 percent and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The resulting document will be introduced into the national public debate as one proposal for how the Occupy Wall Street movement should voice its grievances, turn sentiment into action, and take the power back from greedy corporations and corrupt politicians.

“Then caucus for the candidate whose office you want to occupy in nonviolent direct action. The groups we form on Dec. 27 will go forth during the rest of the week and take our message straight to the candidates’ offices. Both major political parties have become the tools of the 1 percent and we will make sure the voices of the 99 percent are heard over the roar of obscene corporate money.”

As impassioned as that sounds, people like Yourison continue to have doubts. Though he sympathizes with the movement and admits their concerns about Wall Street greed and Washington political lobbyist corruption are real, he feels the First in the Nation Caucus Occupation is a “bad idea and will serve no real purpose.”

“For any movement to succeed, you need support,” he said. “Actions like this will turn people off, and if they want to have any credibility in the long run, they need to work with the process and not stop it. What I worry is that the movement will be hijacked like the tea party was by the neocons, and they will just go back to voting Democrat with no real change.”

However, occupiers like Kelli Griffis, 30, an assistant law librarian in Des Moines, see the Caucus plan — and the entire Occupy movement — as true democracy in action where change is the hopeful result.

“I’ve always been a very civically involved person,” Griffis said. “I vote every time — I even vote for the school board. I’m constantly writing to Congress and calling them and making an appearance to get my issues and those of my friends and neighbors on the forefront of their minds. All I get are form letters written by staff members that aren’t even relevant to the issue I wanted addressed.

“I still feel ignored. I do all the things a good citizen is supposed to do, and I still get the brush off. I’m tired of being ignored, so I figured if I could get a couple hundred of my friends behind me, they can’t ignore us all.”

When will it end?

For Griffis, her work won’t be done until political conversations become more “people-centered — so they develop a people perspective instead of a business perspective.”

Jonathan Vaage, a 25-year-old structural engineer, agrees. He won’t rest until the country reforms how Washington and Wall Street work, including a revitalization of how leaders are elected and how campaigns are financed, he said.

“Open up the process to make third parties more viable to improve political competition and give citizens real options,” he said. “We need to reduce opportunities federal officials have to manipulate the economy for special interest gain — more state control in many cases — and put a halt to the revolving door between Washington and K Street. Term limits aren’t a bad idea either.”

Griffis said changes in finance, tax law and federal budget priorities are a start, but in the end, “it’s about a cultural shift where people think in more a community-centered way about how to live life.

“There’s not one silver bullet. We need all of these things to happen for things to get better,” she continued. “It’s not about how far we get and how much money we accrue, but how much good we can do — for our lives and our society. We’re on to something big here, and it’s something with legs.”

Occupy Des Moines members are planning a week of events and action this week to celebrate their two-month anniversary, which is Friday, Dec. 9.

• Action on Iowa Farm Bureau Annual Meeting with Occupy Iowa City. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 12 p.m., Polk County Convention Center, 501 Grand Ave.

• Teach-in The Federal Budget – Super Committees and What’s Behind OWS. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m., Friends Meeting House, 4211 Grand Ave.

• OccupyDSM Two-Month Anniversary Bash. Friday, Dec. 9, 5 p.m, People’s Park (7th and Locust); 5:30 p.m., march to Stewart Square; 6 p.m. special GA with updates from all committees; 7:30 p.m. potluck; 9 p.m., Party at Freemont.

• Wellmark Rate Increase Public Hearing. Saturday, Dec. 10, 10:30 a.m. - Urbandale Public Library, 3520 86th St., Urbandale.

• Protest the GOP Debate: The Greatest Scam on Earth. Saturday, Dec. 10, 5 p.m. Gather @ First Christian Church, 2500 University Ave. 5:30 p.m., march on debate venue. CV

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