Last week, I spent about an hour sitting on the sidewalk of 8th and Broadway in Columbia, Missouri. Initially, I was hanging out talking to two local citizens who sat in front of Columbia City Hall holding signs. Eventually I crossed the street and hung out with three guys on the opposite corner who were also holding signs – a counter protest if you will – but I will get to that in a minute.
I have been intrigued by the Occupy movement as a whole and specifically by the folks standing on the corner day in and day out for more than a month now. I don’t know a single person, conservative, liberal, or even apolitical, who isn’t irritated with the way the world runs from time-to-time. I wanted to know if the people standing on the corner were more like my Republican sister or my cynical, libertarian father or my hippie friends back in Oregon or another breed of citizen that I hadn’t labeled and put in a box yet.
The two Occupy-ers that I originally spoke with were respectful, thoughtful, happy to talk with me and over-all extremely optimistic. One was an “out-of-work,” 44-year-old musician. Check, I can put him in the box in my head labeled “people I expect to meet at a protest.” Yep, right up until I spent time talking to him. Cause when I learned a little bit more about his life experiences and the things that motivate him, well it was harder to fit him in the exact box I wanted to. The second Occupy-er was a 59-year-old, retired, public defender. Shoot, I had to make a new box in my head for her.
Next thing I knew they were quoting Gandhi, as well as offering statistics, about the Occupy movement, but also about economic trends in this country, and the percentage of kids who live in poverty. I guess it isn’t hard to memorize a few statistics, but most people never bother too.
They are concerned about this country, and the world as a whole. When asked a question they did their best to give a thoughtful answer. When the answer seemed a little too much like a sound-bite to me and I probed deeper, they were happy to engage; to think more, explore more, expand how they were looking at things.
These two people are frustrated, frustrated enough to sit on the corner and hold up signs, hoping to educate their fellow citizens, and risking being ridiculed. Despite it all, they are very, very hopeful that change is possible.
After talking to them for about 20 minutes, three guys showed up on the opposite corner, also holding signs. They were young, clean-cut and easy to put in my box labeled “frat boys.” (Never mind that my husband was in a fraternity.) I decided this was breaking news and in my reporter’s role, I had to interview the “counter-protesters.”
These young men were not willing to talk to me “on the record.” They also said they were not willing to talk to me “off the record.” I tried to remember anything, something, just-one-thing from Journalism School that might help me in the situation. I decided to go with the, “I’m your friend and will just keep chatting with you even if you aren’t talking to me” tactic. (Honestly, I think I learned this watching The Closer – not in college.)
I can tell you what the three signs they were holding said. The first read, “I’m so angry I made this sign.” The second said, “I thought terrorism ended when we killed Osama.” The third said, “Future CEO of a Fortune 500 Company.” It also had something in fine print – but I never read the fine print.
When I asked them why they wouldn’t talk to me, they said they were just there “to get their message out.” I suggested that speaking to me would help that happen. They replied that they wanted their signs to speak for themselves. I suggested they might reach a bigger audience with a little thing called the internet. (But I was polite, not sarcastic. Really, I was. I am capable.) They declined my offer.
They did tell me that they objected to the other protestors. I asked them about freedom of speech. (They are for it.) I asked them if they had actually talked to any of the other protesters. (No.) I asked them if they knew what the “others” were trying to accomplish. (Not really.)
They clearly found my questions (me?) irritating and did not want to engage with me. Although they did basically tell me that they thought protesting was stupid. I will say, I did not expect to interview people at a protest who thought protesting was stupid (I guess I need a new box in my head for these guys.)
Finally, someone drove by, honked and started waving at them. While I am sure they didn’t mean to, they showed some unexpected enthusiasm. Then the driver looked across the street confused. She quickly switched hands and waved at the Occupy CoMo gang. The counter-protesters seemed pretty deflated. Very shortly afterwards the leader of the three guys said, “I think this protest is over.” The second quickly agreed (he had quickly agreed with everything the leader had said all the way along.) The third silently followed. (He hadn’t spoken a word since the leader initially said they didn’t want to be interviewed.)
The final message they gave me, “We’re protesting blind involvement.”
I am pretty sure the number two guy and the number three guy knew a thing or two about blind involvement.
I crossed the street back to City Hall and checked in with the Occupy-ers on the way back to my mini-van. They were very curious about the counter-protesters. I told them the general tone of our conversation. The Occupy-ers then pointed out that the counter-protesters signs would have fit in easily at an Occupy event. I have to agree at least two of the signs would fit in well. The “Future CEO” sign might be more of a stretch; however, if you are not yet the CEO you probably are still part of the 99%. Regardless, the Occupy-ers were excited that the “frat boys” (my words, not theirs) came out and made their voices heard.
If you want to learn more about the Occupy Movement, there will be a rally in front of City Hall, Saturday, November 5 at Noon.
The local folks are hoping to be joined by other Occupy protesters from around the state as well as by some of their 3,574 Facebook Fans. The rally’s focus will likely be the banking industry. However, as I learned, talking to any of the protesters might get you thinking about a whole lot of inter-related issues.
For more information on Occupy CoMo you can find them on Facebook or at www.occupycomo.org. (I don’t think the counter-protesters have a website!)