Observations from Occupy Des Moines


The Occupy Movement is under attack in major cities across the country, and with the weather turning colder, occupiers find themselves facing new obstacles. This is a report from the Des Moines occupation.

A college student and waitress named Danielle has a “mic-check” voice that carries far above the rest of ours. She tells us it’s from years of cheerleading.

A man in his sixties bellows on the steps of City Hall, hands cupped around his mouth, “Mayor Cownie, we love you. We even love the 1%.”

A former candidate for Governor holds a “Join us” sign.

A twenty-something kid in a plastic Anonymous mask sings “Lean on me,” eventually flanked by a crew of pretty young women in the movement, hamming it up to public laughter.

A gentleman wearing his clerical collar, confesses to a soapbox crowd, “I have to admit I am usually embarrassed to be affiliated with the church—but as far as I’m concerned, you are the real church.”

A slight blonde woman of about thirty who stands next to me on the city sidewalk carries a sign reading “Occupy your heart.” She tells me she spent most of the day thinking about what to write.

A broad-shouldered man down the block holds a “Honk if you’re in debt” sign high above his head. On average, truckers beep in solidarity more frequently than cars.

I have never seen as many cross-generation friendships as I see at Occupy Des Moines. Like any family, we fight and disagree. We mock each other, take things too personally, engage in the occasional facebook flame war. But we come together on evenings like this—after a nighttime raid in Zuccotti Park—when the movement is under threat, when necessity reminds us that our true grievances lie elsewhere. There is always perspective amidst the near constant exchange of perspectives.

The small number of hecklers that arrive tonight do not stay for conversation and only use one line: get a job. This is the same, pat line of criticism I’ve heard every time I’ve been on the streets with my fellow Iowans since the movement got started here a month ago. It is only ever uttered by middle-aged or older white men. Never mind that for every five Americans out of work, there is only one available job. Never mind that most of the people involved in Occupy DSM are highly educated and employed. “Get a job” is a criticism that is easily met with response.

Others who witness us on the streets tonight during their rush-hour commute home (something of a misnomer here in Des Moines) slow their cars and snap photos on their cellphones. They are mostly young professionals. I wonder if this is a generational obsession with documenting every single experience, or genuine astonishment at seeing democracy in action.

Far more troubling are those who drive past us in their cars pretending like the mass of us lining the streets are not there. They fake disinterest, or focus their eyes upward, willing the light to turn green. It strikes me that this is the problem we are up against: people choosing to look away from problems and solutions, people desperately trying to deny the world around them, people who do not want to put a human face on the movement or on economic injustice.

While those of us in the Occupy movement worry about how to stay warm outside during the coming winter and how to deal with unfriendly officials, media distortion, arrests, and police brutality (and here in Iowa, how to best mobilize for the coming caucuses), it is clear that we will continue to make ourselves seen and heard. Our peaceful assembly out on the streets tonight is just another demonstration of our belief that discourse mediates the poles of violence and silence. If you look at us, you will see your neighbors, your children, your parents, your co-workers. If you talk to us, you will learn that 99% of the 99% stand in solidarity against corporate occupation of the state. There’s our sound bite, the demand narrow-minded media outlets have chosen to ignore. Of course, it’s not our only demand, just the first.

All photos by Cody Kilgore.

Sarah Hogan is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She studies other worlds, both historical and fictional, and is currently at work on a book, Spatial Dreams, Social Plans: Early English Utopias and the Capitalist Imperialist Imaginary. More from this author →