GEORGE KENNEDY: Occupy movement might fill gap in public conversation

Thursday, October 6, 2011 | 6:02 p.m. CDT

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 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.

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Mike Bellman October 7, 2011 | 12:22 p.m.

What fright mask was he wearing? saw someone standing in front of the keyhole on 9/26 around 7pm, but they were wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
do you mean this one?
Guy Fawkes masks are regularly worn be protesters of the establishment. The mask is also a symbol of anonymity

(Report Comment)
Gary Straub October 7, 2011 | 1:45 p.m.

Tree-huggers should take note as well. The corporate right has been trying to buy off as much federal land as possible. They have been getting a lot of help from their cronies in congress, and many administrations as well. While Bush Jr. reigned they came very close to selling off a huge chunk of the Mark Twain national forest. What is being protested directly affects the vast majority of Americans. The corporate banks and insurance companies have nearly destroyed our once great country. They took our money invested it unwisely and we were made to pay again. They want to own Social Security for they see a huge profit to be made, while our cronies tell us it is failing, while it is not. They have been dipping into the funds to pay for the lack of revenue created by the "temporary" tax breaks, and the never ending wars. They tell us that the post office is failing when it is not, they have their hands in that cookie jar as well. Same goes for the National Park service, they take most of the income from these programs give them a much smaller budget and say they are in arrears. All the while the news organizations regurgitate what they are told and perpetuate the myths so the average person believes it is true because they don't want to believe our government is playing reverse Robin Hood. WE should all join in these protests because our very lives do depend on keeping the this wonderful country from becoming the "Corporate States of America.

(Report Comment)
frank christian October 7, 2011 | 2:09 p.m.
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George Kennedy October 7, 2011 | 2:34 p.m.

It was Guy Fawkes. I'm not used to seeing old Guy in downtown Columbia, so I didn't recognize him. Thanks for clarifying.

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