COLUMBIA — The amphitheater next to the Boone County Courthouse hosted a handful of Occupy Missouri participants this weekend. Campers set up tents, cots and mats on the courthouse grounds for three days of open meetings, demonstrations and story-swapping, drawing occupiers from across the state.
A few demonstrators braving the heat Sunday morning said that while there was a basic agenda to follow, the atmosphere was friendly, a laid-back social gathering with food, music and plenty of water. Like the Occupy movement nationwide, the conference seemed to mean different things to different demonstrators, the bonding element being the desire for change: locally, nationally, globally.
David Dollens, a Vietnam veteran and retiree from Columbia, said he joined Occupy COMO last year and was in front of the city building every day. He said he began demonstrating to "wake people up and make them aware," but at the same time meet new faces around town.
He said it's been refreshing to get out and communicate with others, something he said has been difficult to do in what he views as an increasingly impersonal American society.
“It’s unreal how nice everyone has been,” Dollens said.
Occupier Mike Diel, of Macon, said there were 30 to 40 participants throughout the blistering hot weekend, but that plenty of people are using social media to spread the movement.
A property manager, Diel said he sees financial inequality firsthand when his tenants can barely afford rent. His experiences with rental properties motivated him to enlist in the Occupy cause, no matter the weather.
To keep the demonstrators hydrated, Nestor MacKno provided water from his personal well for his fellow occupiers.
"Hydration in this heat is the most important concern," MacKno said.
The Boone County Government Building also lent a helping hand, leaving the doors unlocked so protestors could use the restrooms and cool off in the air conditioning, Dollens said.
For some of the occupants, utilizing the campgrounds was just as important as the cause.
Glenn Seaman, of Columbia, joined the group Saturday night. He said he's been homeless since February 2012.
As he packed up his few belongings Sunday morning, a backpack, a bicycle with a basket jerry-rigged above the back tire and a small red tent, he said he was glad to have a legal place to make camp.
“I don’t usually have a place to stay,” Seaman said. “Since they have a permit, I just decided to stay too.”
The rest of the campsite will be cleared by Sunday evening, and Dollens said a few from the group plan to load up a van and attend another Occupy demonstration in Philadelphia where they expect anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people in attendance, numbers far larger than Occupy Missouri's conference this weekend.
Occupier D.R. Menard has visited occupy movements on the East Coast, in the South and around the Midwest.
"As you travel you find it's not numbers, but the quality of conversation that's important," Menard said.
Supervising editor is Dan Burley.