You Supply the Signs, I’ll Supply the Occupation

A Dispatch from Occupy Kansas City

We’ve had a drought this autumn here in Kansas City – just 1.29 inches of rain in September and October. So, naturally, the day I visited Occupy Kansas City, it rained. The temperature had fallen about twenty degrees from the week before, and the city had finally allowed the protestors to set up tents on the park grounds of the Spanish-American War Memorial, so long as the tents didn’t actually have walls. Not many people were there; those that were mainly huddled inside their open-air tents.

The Spanish-American War, if you will recall, is the one Orson Welles riffed on in Citizen Kane: “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.” The occupiers mostly sneered at the news truck parked at the far end of their grounds. “Of course they show up today, when it’s raining and cold and not many people are here,” said one of the occupiers. “Then they’ll say that we’re just a handful of kooks and nobody cares.” Nobody mentioned anything about the serendipity of the movement camping out in a park dedicated to a war synonymous, rightly or wrongly, with yellow journalism.

The Spanish-American War Memorial sits next to a number of other monuments: the Liberty Memorial, the tall, torch-like commemoration of American lives lost in the first World War; a statue dedicated to the “unknown mother” who led settlers into the frontier; and, most obviously, the Kansas City Federal Reserve, home to the Money Museum, which is paradoxically free to visit. The Fed is the tallest building for a half-mile in any direction; the occupation literally rests in its shadow.

The Fed had its sprinklers going, even though it was raining; one of them was broken, sputtering out water without direction or utility. A tattooed man who called himself Heathen pointed this out to me and shook his head. “I’ve been here since the first day,” he said, “and they never turned the sprinklers on. First time it rains, and there the fuckers go.”

About twenty minutes after Heathen and I discussed the sprinkler situation, a man in a brown hoodie named Pablo grabbed three cardboard signs and announced that he was going down to Main Street  to wave them around. Heathen – who Pablo called “Rocky,” leading me to think that Heathen had a dozen nicknames and possibly no legal name at all – went with him, but nobody else followed. They were getting ready for the general assembly, which involved trying to rig a tarp to keep everyone dry. (They were not successful, and everyone ended up cold and wet. When it has rained at the GA on the 2nd of November, they retreated to a local tea shop instead.) I watched Pablo and Heathen head past the Fed, towards the intersection, and I called for them to wait up.

I have never been much of a protester, although I certainly had the opportunities: Amnesty International was the most popular club at my high school, and many of my friends seemed to spend every weekend marching against Shell Oil or the war in Iraq. I was cynical, though – I could never see the point. It probably felt good to point out the world’s evils, but what did a handful of angry protestors mean to the villains?

Pablo handed me a sign and the three of us started our rotation of street crossing and sign waving and slogan chanting. Pablo took the initiative, chanting at every car that passed us by with zeal that I knew I would always be too timid to match. He said he was doing it for his daughter, who was 15 months old. Although he tried to get everyone who passed by on Main Street to attend the general assembly, he would not go to it himself. “I’m an anarchist, man,” he told me. “I don’t want to tell anybody what to do.”

We turned back towards the occupation, walking past the looming Federal Reserve; it had finally turned the sprinklers off. In our forty minutes of sign-waving, we got four cars to turn towards the Spanish-American War Memorial for the general assembly. The cynic in my head said that four cars wasn’t much. Still. It was four cars that we didn’t have before.