'Occupy' Activists Urge Like-Minded to Participate In, Not Disrupt, Iowa Caucuses

Community activists speak Thursday at an Occupy movement event in Des Moines, Iowa. i i

hide captionCommunity activists speak Thursday at an Occupy movement event in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Community activists speak Thursday at an Occupy movement event in Des Moines, Iowa.

Community activists speak Thursday at an Occupy movement event in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

In a cavernous Des Moines meeting hall just west of the state Capitol, progressive activist and writer John Nichols had a simple message for those involved in Iowa's iteration of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"Learn to get cool with losing," Nichols told about 50 people who had come to hear advice from longtime activists, including veterans of the civil rights battle.

"Get comfortable that you absolutely will be told you can't succeed," he said, and with the notion of a long-term struggle "that may last beyond your lifetime."

Pushpins placed on a map below a note — "Occupy the map! Where are you from?" — at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. i i

hide captionPushpins placed on a map below a note — "Occupy the map! Where are you from?" — at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Pushpins placed on a map below a note — "Occupy the map! Where are you from?" — at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Pushpins placed on a map below a note — "Occupy the map! Where are you from?" — at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

The struggle to keep the movement going, and activists engaged in work more incremental than immediate, is particularly acute right now in Iowa.

Here, the Occupy effort has had a focus for the past few months: the presidential caucuses, which are now just four days away.

The meeting hall (actually, a vast, vacant former bar/restaurant) where Nichols spoke Thursday night was recently rented by Occupy activists as a temporary staging area for their "Occupy the Caucuses" campaign.

The walls of the space are covered with giant hand-lettered signs, including those encouraging activists to "Vote Uncommitted" in the caucuses. Free food was being offered for those in need, and fliers promoted an "Occupy the Statehouse" event Jan. 10, when Gov. Terry Branstad is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address.

Occupy protester Heaven Ryan, 16, disrupted Ron Paul as he spoke at the Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday. i i

hide captionOccupy protester Heaven Ryan, 16, disrupted Ron Paul as he spoke at the Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Occupy protester Heaven Ryan, 16, disrupted Ron Paul as he spoke at the Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday.

Occupy protester Heaven Ryan, 16, disrupted Ron Paul as he spoke at the Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

In recent days, Occupy activists have staged protests at campaign events and at presidential campaign headquarters in Iowa, including President Obama's. They also are urging those sympathetic to the movement to participate in the caucuses.

"We are adamantly not interested in disrupting the caucuses," Ed Fallon, a former Democratic state legislator and one-time gubernatorial candidate, told us earlier in the day during an interview at Tally's Restaurant in Beaver Valley. "It's important that we don't do that."

Former Democratic state legislator Ed Fallon, a vocal member of the Occupy movement, said activists should take part in the caucuses. i i

hide captionFormer Democratic state legislator Ed Fallon, a vocal member of the Occupy movement, said activists should take part in the caucuses.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Former Democratic state legislator Ed Fallon, a vocal member of the Occupy movement, said activists should take part in the caucuses.

Former Democratic state legislator Ed Fallon, a vocal member of the Occupy movement, said activists should take part in the caucuses.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

Fallon said that if he goes to a Democratic caucus, he would declare himself uncommitted to show his displeasure with Obama's positions on issues ranging from the continuing operation of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

But he is planning to register as a Republican on caucus night and, probably, cast his ballot for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

"That is not an endorsement," Fallon said. "But a Ron Paul versus Obama debate? That's a good debate."

Fallon says the struggle to keep the Occupy effort going is a real one, but he views the movement as the "most encouraging thing I've seen in 30 years of activism."

There is a need for better structure, he says, for movement leaders, for the effort not to become defined by homeless people who tend to be the longest-term occupants of Occupy camps.

"The homeless are part of the movement, be we can't become a homeless movement," he said.

Fallon defends as necessary the movement's use of protest and occupation to get its message out.

Flyers at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. i i

hide captionFlyers at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Flyers at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Flyers at an Occupy movement event Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

"We are a poor movement, and we don't have a lot of political leadership standing with us," Fallon said. "We have our voices, our bodies, our minds and our numbers."

Back at the meeting hall, Nichols and the others grappled with the bottom-line issue of numbers.

"Create your own media," he said, and "make sure that you are not just talking to yourselves."

The real test for Iowa Occupy activists will come after Jan. 3, when the organizing imperative of a presidential contest is in their rearview mirror.

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