Occupy Des Moines


Today, there were protests going on in Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco–most major cities around the globe–all inspired by Occupation of Wall Street that began 4 weeks ago. Include on this long list the city of Des Moines, Iowa.

Des Moines isn’t known as a hotbed of activism. It’s not known as a hotbed of anything really — except perhaps butter cows and caucusing on presidential election years. Iowans practice a fierce moderation in all things, particularly their daily lives: an exciting Saturday starts with a trip to the Farmer’s Market, and if you’re not there by 9:00 a.m., you’ve missed the good stuff (so I hear). The major industry is insurance, which has kept the local economy from feeling most of the effects of the recent downturn, and the real estate bubble never really inflated here. Politically, Des Moines is almost the anti-Austin: Austin, Texas is a blue city in a state of red; Des Moines resides in the most Republican county in the state–but is represented in Congress by a conservative Democrat.

So it is no small event when downtown Des Moines hosts an occupation and an outpouring of several hundred activists, chanting, “the people united cannot be divided,” “this is what democracy looks like,” and “we are the 99%” while carrying signs and calling out Bank of America and Wells Fargo for their corporate misdeeds.

This morning’s march began at the newly dubbed “People’s Park,” where last Sunday night, 32 protesters were arrested, initiating an otherwise relatively unbroken occupation of the green space outside the Iowa Statehouse. (The official occupation site has since moved. The state government, on the recommendation of Governor Terry Branstad, refused to renew a permit to camp on the state grounds, so Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie offered them the use of a City Park, just blocks away.)

Here in Iowa, the protests are exceedingly polite, pretty well-dressed, and there has been very little conflict with police (even Sunday’s arrests were relatively peaceful). Organizers worked with police to make sure that marchers stayed on one side of the street in case vehicles needed to pass through (and passing vehicles included a cement truck whose driver gave the protesters a few blasts of his horn and a friendly wave). The strongest word anyone used on the soapbox was “bullshit” and it only popped up once. Protesters chatted with police–when I walked behind one and stepped off the sidewalk to pass, he smiled and apologized for not stepping forward more quickly. And I suspect that had anyone even thought about throwing a trashcan through the window of Wells Fargo (where the march ended), they would have been stopped by the rest of the group. The culmination of the march was the placing and reading aloud a “note” for Wells Fargo that reads “sorry we missed you. We’ll be back. Hugs n’ kisses, Occupy Des Moines.”

Polite and orderly, yes. Armed with substantive complaints made vehemently, yes yes yes. After the note was delivered, a patch of sidewalk was made available to all who wanted to speak their minds. Amplified by the disconcerting but effective “people’s mic” (the crowd, in unison, repeating the speaker’s words phrase by phrase) one man, who identified himself as a veteran and a union member, told of how his son joined the Army because he couldn’t find a job. He ships out to Afghanistan in December. The man pointed out how the wealthy start wars and benefit financially from them, while the poor and middle classes fund them and fight them. An employee of Wells Fargo told of how they limit him to 30 hours a week so they don’t have to provide insurance benefits, but if he calls in sick, he has to have a note from a doctor.

Several college-age people spoke on their “indentured” status due to their student loans. Statements were made both in favor of and opposing capitalism itself. One person argued, “in this country we have capitalism for the poor, and socialism for the rich.” One woman told how, when she explains to people that she works for a large corporation but is required to do nothing unethical, they look at her “as though they’d just seen a unicorn. I should be normal,” she added, to laughter and applause, and the crowd responded that she too was part of the 99%.

The movement that has risen up in the wake of the original Wall Street Occupation is becoming global, but it is still ultimately a local phenomenon, as individuals make the personal decision to pause their routines and gather in hopes of stopping the cycle of corruption and injustice, and making the world a better place, as local communities take a stand against the problems that plague the vast majority of the world in the way that makes the most sense to them.

Does the OWS movement “play in Peoria”? Yes, there was a march in Peoria this morning. And Des Moines, and Little Rock, and Tampa, and Edmonton, and Charlotte, and Spokane, and on and on. You don’t have to be in New York. You don’t have to be in a big city at all. Occupy where you live. “The people united…”

Video of the Des Moines March, October 15, 2011

Amy Letter is the Rumpus Digital/Electronic/New Media Literature Editor. Brian Spears is the Rumpus Poetry Editor. More from this author →