Occupy STL -- Voices from Kiener Plaza

Categories: Of the People
Albert Samaha
Three weeks ago the Occupy Wall Street movement was a fringe spectacle, relegated to back page blurbs, obscure blogs and Keith Oldermann monologues. And now it leads network newscasts and makes the front page of the New York Times.
The man in the light blue button down is just on a quick smoke break. He's from southwest Missourah, in town for a meeting, soaking up a nice day in Kiener Plaza in the heart of downtown St. Louis and he's stumbled upon a square full of sleeping bags and Imo's boxes and pitched tents and people talking about union rights and corporate tax rates and democracy. He's observing the scene and looks confused.

"I don't know what they're trying to do," he says. "This is all strange to me."

Behind him is a large banner that says "Occupy STL." In front of him are thirty or forty people, young and middle-age, in worn jeans and loose t-shirts, huddled on the plaza's steps. A girl in all black is signing up people for various committees: donations, safety, health, food, outreach, etc.

The Occupy STL folks have occupied Kiener Plaza for nearly a week now and they're organizing themselves for the long haul. After all, according to Paul Joseph Poposky, one of the de facto leaders of the group, they'll be there "as long as it takes."

Albert Samaha
"This is a worldwide movement for change," says Poposky (right). "Against institutional social and economic injustice.
It's a bold quest, considering that the people are seeking a fundamental shift in the way America functions. But, shit, three weeks ago, when the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off, this whole thing was a fringe spectacle, relegated to back page blurbs, obscure blogs and Keith Oldermann monologues. And now it leads network newscasts and makes the front page of the New York Times. President Obama said that the movement is "giving voice to a more broad-based frustration as to how our financial system works." It seems every city with a professional sports team or a college campus features an "Occupy [insert name here]." Thousands of people are marching.

"This is a worldwide movement for change," says Poposky. "Against institutional social and economic injustice."

He admits this is a vague goal, which has been the primary criticism toward the movement. But, he adds, the vagueness is by-design, intended to leave room for a wide range of policy-based discourse, to allow people of various ideological ties to take part.

The movement has been framed as a left-wing counter to the Tea Party, an amalgamation of progressives and hippies and anarchists incited by the conservative wave. After all, the purveyors of partisan fodder have taken sides. Pundits on MSNBC have pretty much championed the cause, while those on Fox News have mocked the efforts.

But the people sitting around the Kiener Plaza steps resent the political categorization. One man says he is a conservative independent. Another calls himself a former Tea Partier. There is a woman wearing a rubber Obama mask. There is another woman wearing a Reagan mask.

The individuals are hesitant to claim a specific policy blueprint for the movement, wary of undermining the collective's scope of ideas. But consensus positions have emerged.

Carmalene Jackson, another of the group's de facto leaders, explains that they are pushing for a higher corporate tax rate. Furthermore, Occupy Wall Street gained added credibility this week as unions across the country proclaimed their support.

And there, standing a few feet back from the square, about a dozen members of St. Louis' Local 110, in orange or green or blue union hats and shirts and windbreakers, observe the scene. Thursday is their first appearance at Kiener Plaza.

"We believe in what they are fighting for," says Cil Sanchez, a construction worker. "For Washington and Wall Street not to be so greedy."

"I think it's going to get people energized," adds Brad Robertson, also a construction worker.

The night before, the Occupiers were kicked out of the plaza by St. Louis police. Ten people were arrested (for violating the park's curfew). The protesters, though, aren't simply professional activists with nothing else to do with their time. Some are unemployed and some have full-time obligations. There is a college student who spends the night in a sleeping bag in the plaza then hustles to class in the morning. There is a family man who spends a few hours there after work. There is a graveyard shift worker who takes a quick nap in the morning before heading over for a day of marching and chanting. People weave in and out, shuttling time between protesting and their daily lives.

After the committees are assigned, two women discuss the nuances of maintaining the make-shift camp. In the middle of the square, between tents and a couch blanketed by sleeping bags and pillows, there is a table filled with food-- potluck and donated. A couple of homeless people hang around, munching on chips and pizza. A port-a-potty stands at the top of the plaza's steps. The women agree that it need to be cleaned out soon. One of them goes to the center of the square and addresses the group.

"I need to know if everybody agrees to use donation money to clear the port-a-potty," she says.

A handful of people shout "Yeah!" Some raise their hands or nod. A quorum, it seems.

A few minutes later, the protesters gather their signs and march down the sidewalk toward the St. Louis Justice Center.

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