On a beautiful sunny day, I arrive at Occupy Des Moines in Iowa [@OccupyDSM on Twitter]. The encampment is in Stewart Square, a few blocks away from the state capitol. Tents are setup in the middle of the park. There are signs alongside the street urging people who drive by to visit the occupation.
A member of the Security working group asks me who I am with and I inform him that I am touring Midwest occupations for Firedoglake. I say that I would like to interview someone about the occupation. I also tell him that I have brought the Occupy Supply fund to the occupation and would like to know what the occupation needs to get through the winter.
It is 5 pm in the evening. This is about the time that activity begins to pick up in the park. And someone, who is willing to speak with media, is found for me.
I sit down on a park bench with Rod. He has lived in Des Moines for five years. He grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and served in the Air Force for ten years.
Occupy Des Moines, he explains, was invited to occupy Stewart Square by Mayor Frank Cownie. The mayor said the park should be a place where people can “congregate and air their grievances” and he “couldn’t have envisioned a better use” for Stewart Square.
Rod goes on to say the occupation wasn’t always in Stewart Square. It began on the state capitol’s lawn, which the occupiers renamed “People’s Park,” on October 9. About 500 citizens came out to launch the occupation. Former state legislator Ed Fallon, who was participating in the first day of the occupation, contacted the state patrol to see if they were okay with the occupation staying in “People’s Park.” The state patrol didn’t want the occupiers to be there overnight and showed up with vans to arrest those who would not leave the area.
About 40-50 people stood their ground, including Fallon and a 14-year-old girl. The action carried out with the consent of Des Moines Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, resulted in dozens of arrests. The suppression of the occupation on its first day galvanized support. A three-day permit was issued in the aftermath. The occupation was led to believe this permit would be renewed. It was not. Occupiers decided not to challenge the state because the mayor offered them the opportunity to occupy Stewart Square instead.
The occupation has a permit that is good for seven days. It has been renewed three times. Each time that it is up for renewal the city checks to see that the occupation is complying with codes, ordinances, rules, etc and then they renew the permit.
Rod shares how fantastic the neighborhood has been to the occupation. The Neighborhood Association, which holds weekly meetings at a nearby school, has invited occupiers to attend their meetings. They have had children in the neighborhood come out and play in the park. The Parks Department finds they are taking care of the park well. They are raking leaves, picking up after dogs, recycling, maintaining their porta-potties and respecting the space they are occupying.
The one small issue they seem to have had was worked out. They had straw bales they were using for insulation. They also had unapproved electric heaters. They were asked to remove the straw bales and heaters from the premise.
Rod tells me that the candlelight vigil they held for Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen, who was hit in the head by a tear gas canister at Occupy Oakland, was possibly their largest event to date. I mention that a number of veterans have really been energized and moved by this and he responds, “This is just as much about them as everybody else.”
[As a veteran], I’ve done everything in my power to try and improve myself, to make myself more employable, and it seems like everything I do—It’s not a positive. It’s a negative. I went back to school. I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 2006 with two Bachelor of Science degrees in Manufacturing & Design and I’ve
had one full time job that lasted three years. That’s a shame. That shouldn’t happen in our society. You should be rewarded.
The occupation is preparing for winter. Rod tells me they are taking large tents and putting smaller tents inside to block the wind. The Fire Marshal actually found this to be a pretty ingenious idea. Also, they just had a few larger structures delivered and are about to put those together tonight. These structures were purchased with money that was donated.
Occupy Des Moines is also developing actions to take place during the Iowa Caucuses. I interview Ed Fallon, who would like to see Iowa hold the first Occupy caucus in the nation. The caucus would talk about the issues and “put priorities in the right place. They would then show presidential candidates how serious they are about addressing these issues. [Note: This idea of holding actions during the Iowa Caucuses is taking off. The news media is reporting plans to engage in civil disobedience in January. The governor is treating calls for actions during the caucuses as plans that Occupy Des Moines plans to shut down the caucuses.]
It is worth noting Occupy Des Moines is not the only occupation in Iowa. There are occupations in Council Bluffs, Iowa City, Sioux City and Mason City. Occupy Iowa tends to be confused with Occupy Des Moines but they are not one and the same. Occupy Iowa is a kind of catch-all for all the Occupy movement activity going on in the state.
I inform Rod that I have brought the Occupy Supply fund to Des Moines and FDL is willing to go out and purchase some supplies to help the occupation last through winter. Rod asks if FDL could donate four heaters that the fire marshal has said would be permitted. We find the heaters online so I get the right kind – a Mr. Buddy heater that has no open flame.
I leave with Angie, an FDL member who has graciously offered to host me for the night. We pick up the heaters and return when the occupiers are in the middle of their General Assembly. The occupiers see us unloading the heaters and they use the human mic to shout, “Thank you, Kevin!”
I quickly respond that it isn’t me they have to thank. They should thank all the people who donated tens of thousands of dollars to the fund so that FDL would have money to spend on occupations during this tour. They should thank the fine crew at FDL, who worked out the logistics so that I could be here and have a place to sleep each night of my tour.
Occupy Des Moines is my second to last visit on my Midwest tour. I drove six hours from St. Louis to get to the occupation. I feel like I have almost reached my limit, the point where I need to take a break before I travel anywhere else. Hearing everyone show their appreciation for what FDL is doing is invigorating and reminds me that no matter how tired I may be this is all worth it.
Interview with Rod
Interview with Ed Fallon