”Socialism has killed more people than both world wars combined,” the speaker told the group that had assembled.
The crowd’s reaction was decidedly negative, but not unexpected. One young man smiled and shook his head silently at the suggestion, familiar with the claim but confidently above it. Another woman dripped scorn on the pair of presenters, accusing them of promoting a “heteronormative” view of economics. Slavery was evoked by several questioners; exploitation, they said, was the hallmark of American economic development throughout its history.
As the talk spiraled downward, one of Occupy St. Louis’s bearded and stocking-capped leaders stepped in to save the outsiders, and maybe himself in the process. He thanked the presenters.
“We’ll have a yoga meditation session in just a few minutes,” he offered, motioning to the center of the park. Teach-In time was over. Yoga time had begun.
It was a strange introduction to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just nine days into the “occupation” of St. Louis’s Kiener Plaza, the crescent-shaped public park had already developed a rings-of-Saturn quality about it. Cheap floral couches dotted the amphitheater, gaudy additions to Kiener’s otherwise spartan concrete risers. Tents, squeezed together like rowhouses, neatly separated the protesters from the world outside: in this case, the roadways abutting the park. An outer ring of signs faced out toward Market Street for the benefit of pedestrians and motorists alike, featuring a hodge-podge of Left and Left-Libertarian bailiwicks — “greedy corporations” bore the brunt of the rhetorical damage, maligned in various shades of Sharpie and acrylic paint.
Interspersed throughout the scene: Kiener Plaza’s homeless, who in better economic times would have occupied the plaza by themselves. Some conversed with the students as the young activists shuttled from discussion circle to discussion circle. Others sat forlornly at picnic tables on the outskirts of the plaza, silent sentinels waiting for the activities below to conclude. When the occupation ended, the plaza would, after all, be theirs again.
Although a mishmash of foreign and domestic policy objections seasoned the protesters’ ideological plate, the driving focus of the now week-long event was pretty clear. Variations of “Corporations aren’t people!” were painted on many signs, their authors apparently unmoved by the 1886 Supreme Court decision that, legally speaking, made them so. The 2010 Supreme Court decision affirming the speech rights of corporations received its share of poster board grief, as well. One placard taped prominently near the plaza’s main entrance echoed this disdain, a testament to the anger directed at that Supreme Court over the Citizens United ruling, but also to the courage of the protester who shimmied up the colonnade to broadcast the point. Those evil, soulless, speechifying corporations are apparently at it again, banes of our collective existence, and Occupy Wall Street had had enough.
But then there’s the irony of OWS’s anti-corporate impulse, at least in St. Louis. Brand new Ozark Trail dome tents (a popular Wal-Mart item as it turns out) dominated the encampment circumscribing the park. Occupiers with modern Apple and Dell laptops busily plucked internet from the air while compatriots passed the time doodling and diddling with their smartphones, waiting for the next communal activity. Coffee cups from the Panera Bread Co. and Hardee’s comforted the waking, as Coleman sleeping bags embraced the comatose. Using the blank side of a giant canvas Adidas advertisement as a screen, occupiers watched “V for Vendetta” — a Warner Brothers film — with Windows Media Player. As it turns out, there is very little the Occupiers could do without a corporate assist, leaving them just like the rest of us in that regard.
Perhaps the obvious contradictions were some elaborate form of performance art, and heaven knows movements have been based on less. (See: the Coffee Party.) But I have little doubt that most of the protesters are well-meaning, either in search of their political voice or happy and content providing a voice for the percolating politics of others in attendance. America has serious problems, problems that are especially intense for my generational cohorts looking to start their lives on a firm economic footing. Those concerns – voiced at Occupy St. Louis and elsewhere – need to be taken seriously by our political leaders.
But in the case of Occupy St. Louis, it’s not evident that the group will be a serious actor in the effort to fix the problems it bemoans. It’s hard to take a movement seriously when group decisions are made by a “General Assembly” but the votes aren’t actually counted – when “jazz hands” carry a strange level of legislative and organizational import and economic dialogues are interrupted in favor of Bakasana sessions.
There’s enthusiasm here, no doubt, but will it last, and will in mean anything? If I were a activist from the left, I wouldn’t get my hopes up, despite (or perhaps because of) the support being lent to the movement by some unions and politicians. In the meantime, Kiener Plaza’s regular occupants will have to wait at their empty picnic tables for the protesters to eventually clear out. The park will be theirs again. Just not yet.
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