I had intended this week to join the outraged chorus, which now includes even the octogenarian sage across town, criticizing the proposed gerrymander of Columbia’s electoral wards.
But then I realized something potentially important nationally is going on and little noticed right under our noses. I’ll belabor the ward realignment issue next time.
The network news and front pages of the national press the past few days have been full of the protesters in New York who say they want to publicize the sins of Wall Street and see the mighty brought low.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has produced spin-off protests in more than 300 cities across the country and beyond. Union members have linked arms with college students. Parks, streets and bridges have been packed with marchers.
Hundreds have been arrested — a few of them in St. Louis — in what’s being called a massive show of civil disobedience. The pundits are suggesting this could be the birth of a tea party of the left.
Locally, with Occupy COMO, not so much.
I encountered the guy who may have been our first occupier last week as I headed for the City’s Council work session. He was standing in front of our iconic Keyhole to the City monument, wearing a fright mask and holding a placard. I asked what he was protesting.
“Corporate greed,” he said.
I told him I sympathized with the sentiment. He offered me a placard. I declined.
Since then, the occupiers have in fact occupied the plaza in front of the Daniel Boone City Building, but so unobtrusively that they haven’t attracted much attention from passersby.
Once I gathered from reading about the national movement in the New York Times and the Washington Post that this wasn’t just some sort of pre-Homecoming gimmick or warm-weather craziness, I headed back downtown.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, three occupiers were on duty. The talkative member of the trio, who identified himself as Trip and said he’s homeless and unemployed, treated me to a conspiracy-fueled rant about world dominance by the rich and powerful.
Trip’s placard carried a quote from James Madison warning of the dangers of a concentration of wealth. No news there, I thought.
A taller and quieter protester was holding a sign that read “You are awesome.” She was rewarded with an occasional honk from a passing car. She’s a nurse on her day off, she told me.
After reading about the occupation on Facebook, she rode her bike down to join in. She worries about the state of the world and of our politics, she said.
Obviously, Columbia’s little band of activists won’t redirect American politics or even Broadway traffic. Nationally, the movement of which they’re part just might have an impact.
E.J. Dionne, a thoughtful liberal writer in the Post, suggests this spontaneous uprising signals a response by the left that has largely been missing in action from the public conversation.
The right, most visibly the tea party, has set the tone this year of not only the Republican presidential nomination process but much of the establishmentarian punditry. The center of gravity in our politics has shifted far to the right.
A mass movement demanding more attention to those they call “the 99 percent” might refocus the argument away from tax cuts for the rich and toward more help for the jobless and the hopeless.
Jonathan Capehart, another Post columnist, pointed me toward the occupywallstreet.org website, where I found a statement of principles and goals most of us progressives support. Our support so far, however, has been mainly muted and notably ineffective.
Now that President Barack Obama seems to have rediscovered his voice, could it be that the self-styled occupiers will stir up a following for him? As Capehart points out, success will require better organization and a more specific call to action.
Standing in the sunshine with the occupiers Wednesday, I doubted that we’ll see New York-style mass protest in Columbia. The sign-holding nurse agreed.
“Around here, we’re mostly tree-huggers,” she said.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.