Police Not a Problem for OccupySTL; The Homeless on the Other Hand...


  • Albert Samaha
There is madness in Oakland, Chicago, Phoenix, DenverAtlanta, New York. Flash-and-bang gas canisters... protesters flushed from public squares... mass arrests. But not here. At first, a cynic might think, "Of course! The last thing this city needs is a stone-throwing-police-with-shields-and-helmets riot in front of the national media in town for the World Series."

Doesn't seem that way, though. It's a rainy Wednesday and about a dozen "99 Percenters" gather under the protective overhang at Kiener Plaza to discuss national ills. There are fifty or so wet tents all around them. They go around in a circle, each person explaining their motives for joining the movement.

"I'm here because I'm scared of where the world is going," says a blond woman in a black sweatshirt.

People nod. Specific issues raised.

Low corporate tax rates... unlimited campaign funding... Senate filibusters... mortgage and college loan debts... unemployment... broken system... worldwide angst....

"I've been waiting for something like this for a long time," says a man named Ben, who sports a full beard and a green Cardinals cap. "I couldn't believe that things were going the way they were going and there weren't masses in the streets saying, 'Is this really what's going on?'"

Two policemen on bikes roll up and park a few yards behind the group. A white-shirted lieutenant gestures to a young man at the back of the pack. He asks him to bring over one of the leaders.

"I don't want to interrupt," says the lieutenant.

The young protester finds Carmalene Jackson and brings her over to the police. She and the lieutenant discuss a recent theft of a protester's laptop and the steps the police are taking to locate it. After a few minutes, the officers leave.

"Good seeing you lieutenant!" one protester says.

"See you around!" says another.

The Occupy St. Louis folks have slept and eaten at Kiener Plaza for 26 days now. And after the burst of arrests for breaking park curfew three weeks ago, and the threats of more arrests the next day, the city and the police have kept their hands off. The 10 p.m. curfew at the square has not been enforced. The number of tents has grown. Up to sixty protesters regularly stay overnight.

"A lot of police here in St. Louis have good reason to support us," says Paul Joseph Poposky, another one of the leaders. "I think the police stand to gain just as much from what we're doing here -- the economic and social message-- as anyone else."

Rather than drive the protesters out of the park each night, the police check-in daily to make sure there is peace and order. Because peace and order aren't assured.

With the rain dying down, a young man named Conen walks over to a make-shift tent with a cardboard sign reading, "Kitchen." Fruits and snacks are laid out on foldable tables like at a farmer's market. There are stacks of styrofoam cups and a couple of coffee makers in the back of the tent. A woman named Diane stands behind the tables. Conen asks her for a cup of coffee.

"You homeless?" Diane aks.

"No, I'm from Granite City," says Conen.

"You coming from Hopeville?"

"Nah, coming from my dad's house. Been here for like a month."

"I ask because there are a lot of homeless coming up here."

"Yeah, a few homeless people have caused some trouble."

Just last week there were some fights at the square. Some people weren't abiding by the "No Alcohol, No Drugs" rule. They didn't appreciate being told to leave, but they did eventually.

"Some homeless people started some drama," says a man in a red sweatshirt.

It was an isolated minority, to be sure. Homeless people are welcome at the encampment, have been from the start. Many came for the free food and undisturbed living quarters, then ended up staying once they heard the message.

Like a twenty-something named Busch, for instance. He's been "a traveler" since he was sixteen. He came down from Chicago with his dog Rebel a week ago, stumbled upon this community of tents, listened to some of the democracy talk, and now he's totally down with the movement.

"Shows people are human," he says. "As long as you're human, you got an issue."

And then there's Cheryl. She came up from Florida three weeks ago, bounced around some shelters, then made base here. She's become a zealot for the message.

"I was out," she says. "I was bored in the evenings a lot. I got lost because I'm not from here, and I ended up here. I watched and observed and listened and I liked what I heard."

Now she's a "welcomer" for the group. She also jots down the minutes for some of the meetings.

Randy is homeless, too. Except he came here on purpose, showed up the first day. He'd heard about the Occupy Wall Street stuff going on in New York and jumped on board as soon as the movement reached St. Louis. He was one of the ten people arrested in early October. Contrary to Fox News reports, the homeless folks aren't getting paid ten bucks a day to make the movement look bigger.

"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world," Randy says. "There's not enough money in the world to get me to leave this place."

Of course, it's hard to discern the handful of homeless from the more traditional activists, who've lived here -- sleeping on the concrete, eating on the steps -- for nearly a month.

"Less employment equals more occupation," says a man named John, as he sits in a tent strumming a guitar. "The people are just fed up."

John is a former military man and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War -- he's working to set up a St. Louis chapter. He spends most nights in the plaza, but goes home every now and then to shower and soak up a few hours of apartment luxury. A harsh winter is on the way, so he and the other protesters are preparing to weatherize their tents as they plan to ride it out as long as it takes.

"I know the media and everybody sneers at us for not having a single message and being disorganized," he says. "It's not disorganized. America just has too many issues. There are so many problems, how can we figure out a single objective?"

The rain is starting to come down hard now, so Poposky and the other leaders decides to postpone a scheduled march to City Hall. They'll do it on Thursday instead.


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