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Government, Politics & Issues

Occupy St. Louis starts out small, but aims to grow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2011 - If it weren't for Wednesday night's arrests, the public might not even be aware of the several dozen, largely young, protesters camping out in Kiener Plaza this week as they wave signs decrying corporate excesses and lack of jobs.

The Occupy St. Louis movement admittedly has a way to go before its activities can compare with the crowds that have packed Kiener Plaza over the past couple years for rallies organized by tea party groups or labor unions.

But organizers locally and nationally believe that Occupy St. Louis and its national parent, Occupy Wall Street, have the potential to build a progressive force that could attract the attention, and clout, that has given the tea party real political muscle.

"People are fed up,'' said Jeff Ordower, a member of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), among the supporters of the Occupy St. Louis movement.

Occupy St. Louis has counterparts in more than 250 other cities in the United States and Canada, activists say, as offshoots of the larger Occupy Wall Street protests that have attracted thousands of dissidents to New York's financial district. The national AFL-CIO has announced its support, and local union activists were among those joining in the Occupy St. Louis protests this week.

Said Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, in a supporting statement issued Friday: "Students, workers and senior citizens in St. Louis have joined protesters in cities nationwide, speaking out and demanding that politicians listen and take action. From Wall Street and now to the main streets of cities across the country, people are on their feet demanding change...."

The progressive online site, Daily Kos, declared Thursday, "Occupy Wall Street is spreading like wildfire."

The national movement is centered around concerns several decades old -- the demise of good-paying jobs and the belief that corporations and the wealthy wield too much power -- coupled with newer criticism about Wall Street's missteps that helped cause the current economic downturn.

But the protests are fueled by 21st-century technology -- and the popularity of social media -- that are reaching like-minded people seeking a way to express their frustrations and, perhaps, make a difference.

Mike Baldwin, 54, operates a nonprofit but came down to Kiener to "show solidarity with the group in New York."

Patrick Durian, a 30-year-old hotel clerk, was drawn to the protest by his shared concern that the nation's "checks and balances" have gotten out of whack.

A handful of corporations and wealthy Americans, he said, wield too power and control too much of the nation's riches. "Human beings are not numbers," Durian said. "And I take issue with the fact that money is given more importance than human beings."

Like most of those mingling in front of the St. Louis Justice Center on Thursday afternoon, Durian had first learned of the protest on Facebook.

Ditto for Chelsea Webster, 21, a college student who works part time for a photography firm that handles school pictures. Since Monday, she said, she's been shuttling between Kiener Plaza, classes and her job to show solidarity with people she'd never known before.

The group had marched on Thursday from Kiener Plaza to the Justice Center, which houses the city jail, to await the release of 10 fellow protesters who, police say, were arrested Wednesday night for staying in Kiener Plaza after the 11 p.m. curfew.

Some said that on Tuesday night, they had received citations but were not arrested, when they declined to vacate the park.

Those arrested included Derek Wetherell, 21, of Imperial. Wetherell, a union member who works for a local grocery, said the protesters had made a decision not to leave the park -- even after being warned by police -- as "a conscious act of civil disobedience."

A spokeswoman for the Police Department said Wednesday night's arrests were made "without incident for violation of park curfew" shortly after midnight. Those arrested face fines.

While not happy with the arrests, the protesters did compliment police for their considerate -- and, to some -- sympathetic behavor.

"We've heard from a lot of police that they do support our cause,'' Wetherell said.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay posted an open letter to the protesters on his website Thursday afternoon in which he emphasized that he was sympathetic to their cause but "please obey the law."

Slay added that the protesters already had been visible while President Barack Obama was in town and "by tens of thousands of baseball fans. Both were good occasions for you to make your point. And you did."

Now, he suggested, it was time to go home.

But they may not be ready.

Justin Edwards, a doorman at a downtown bar, found out about the protest Wednesday night when he was walking a couple of women patrons to their car.

On Thursday, he had joined them, and was seated in front of the Justice Center, holding up a sign asking, "Can You Afford a Lobbyist?"

Edwards, 30, is a former Marine who was out of work for more than a year before a fellow veteran helped him find a job. Edwards said the frustration about the flagging economy and low-paying -- or non-existent -- jobs was palpable among many of his acquaintances.

Still, he suspected that many Americans are not yet angry enough to join him and others on the streets. "It's going to take higher gas prices, higher cereal prices and higher chicken prices," Edwards said.

John Harris, 48, said he's willing to stick it out now. Harris has been unemployed for year and says that he and others in the same economic boat "need to band together."

"I've got the time now,'' Harris added dryly.

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