Archive for October, 2011

Occupy Week, Part I: The People

Posted in current events, opinion with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2011 by Kyle Fleming

While my college was on fall break from October 27-30, I and another Wartburg student attended the Occupy St. Louis protest, currently being held in Kiener Plaza in St. Louis, Missouri, just a few blocks away from Busch Stadium. I went because I was looking for an educational experience, wanting to learn more about the movement and what it means for me. And what an experience it was. Hopefully my first-hand experiences will shed some light on the inner workings of the Occupy movement and encourage people to be more active in the movement. — KF

If you know nothing about the Occupy Wall Street movement, or if you only know what is covered by media outlets, you may be inclined to believe that the Occupy movement is nothing but a bunch of angry liberals too lazy to get jobs, so they’re taking to the streets to get the government to give them benefits they don’t deserve.

Personally, I knew virtually nothing about the Occupy movement before volunteering to go to Occupy St. Louis. I had only been reading up on the movement for a couple of weeks, really getting in-depth in my involvement since I heard news of Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran who was hit in the head with a tear gas canister during the Occupy Oakland protests.

Arriving at the camp site around 7:30 PM on Friday, October 28, I could immediately tell I was in for a treat. Protesters were already standing on the street corner, holding signs and chanting slogans, as Cardinals fans walked by, a lot of them drunk, worried more about the results of World Series Game Seven than what protesters on a street corner wanted to say.

Photo taken by Alicia Davis

Holding a sign as part of a candlelight vigil for Scott Olsen

My first experience as part of the movement came fast and furious: I was welcomed, handed a candle and a sign, and took my place on the corner. Before my feet were even planted, I had this exchange with an obviously intoxicated lady:

“Are you part of this Occupy thing?”
“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
“Fuck you.”

As I got more into the movement, and figuring out what to say to people that came up to talk to me, I learned more about the people around me. Of course, with any movement, there were hippies. And as with any public place in a major city, there were homeless people. But overall, there were average, hard-working people who were just trying to get their voices heard. The people involved in St. Louis included:

  • A freelance computer programmer, formerly making over $120,000 a year with Microsoft before his position was outsourced.
  • A T-Mobile wholesaler, in charge of six T-Mobile franchises in the St. Louis area, who was forced to declare bankruptcy and move to a small apartment with his wife and kid.
  • Full-time college students who would prefer not to graduate deep in debt.
  • A postal worker from the St. Louis area.
  • A stay-at-home mom who comes out during the day while her kids are in school.

In talking with these people, they did not appear to be “angry liberals” or free-loaders; they were just hard-working people who come out to support a cause they believe in whenever they get the chance. In fact, if anyone could be personified as “angry,” it was the people that drove or walked by and hurled insults at the protesters. Among the many passing calls to “get a job” and “go home,” some people stopped to confront the protesters face-to-face.

“You know,” one man said, “it’s 1% of Americans that are whiny assholes.”

“I went to work today!” shouted another lady. “Did you?”
“Yes I did,” answered one of the protesters. “I work 40 hours a week, just like you!”

It was surprisingly easy for me to not fall into the baiting. One “conversation” I had (which I was pretty proud of having) was with a guy who leaned out his car window at a red light:

“I’m part of the 1% of Americans,” he said. “How does that make you feel?”
“I’m proud of you,” I said. “I hope I can be some day.”
“Yeah, being the 1% is awesome. It feels great.”
“I’m sure it does. Congratulations.”
“What? You aren’t mad at me? Get mad at me!”
“There’s no reason for me to be mad. I don’t even know you.”
As the light turned green and the car pulled away, he shouted, “Go smoke another joint, hippy!”

But despite the cause, it’s important to note that the Occupiers are human, too. When the Cardinals won the World Series, and crowds of people ran into the streets, all of the Occupiers set down their signs and celebrated with the people. For a few moments, there was no 99% v. 1%. Instead, there was 100%, a huge crowd of people proud of their hometown team, and wishing to express that joy however they could.

Photo taken by Kyle Fleming

Having a conversation with a Rangers fan about how to get corporate money out of politics

Even amongst the verbal abuse and insults, there were some magical moments. Some people genuinely wanted to know about the cause, and would stop and have very civil and productive discussions. Some people knew what the cause was, but wanted to know what ideas we had in going about change. There were a few people who even had a change in heart after talking with us. One lady stopped to tell three of us to get off our asses and get a job.

“I have a job,” said two of them.
“I’m a full-time college student trying to find a job,” I said. “But so are so many other people. I keep getting turned down from the places I apply.”

That lead to a discussion about what exactly we were protesting. It wasn’t about jobs or anything related to jobs; it was about bringing the American political system back to the American people and away from corporate money. This lady’s friends were not thrilled that she stopped, but she stayed with us. Before she left, she said, “I’ll let you know, I support you, but I don’t, y’know? But you keep fighting your fight. I wish you luck.”

In lieu of everything that happened during that day and into that night, those words of half-support were very meaningful. She may not fully understand what the Occupy movement is about, but a seed was planted. Hopefully, in time, the movement will have her full support.

We can only hope.

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