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Occupy Wall Street Protests Unite A Father And Son Living 1,000 Miles Apart

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A flag taped to a tree in Zuccotti Park hangs amid Occupy Wall Street protesters, prior to their eviction from the park.
A flag taped to a tree in Zuccotti Park hangs amid Occupy Wall Street protesters, prior to their eviction from the park.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- In the last three years, Dutch Ruisch has lost his mortgage business, filed for bankruptcy, and lost his home to foreclosure. Now, living in a house he doesn't own, he spends most of his time being a part of the local Occupy movement in Des Moines, Iowa, while his son protests on the other side of the country.

Ruisch had been a quiet, lifelong Republican voter. This is the first time he's been politically active in his life. It's also the first time he and his son, Benjamin, have bonded so strongly over anything. His son has been in the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York since it began.

Dutch Ruisch's given name is Dennis, but he prefers his nickname now because he says he's gone through a profound change. Occupy Des Moines has become his new community, full of friends he met on the first day whom he watched get arrested for peacefully protesting on the statehouse grounds.

"There's not been a day go by that I haven't put my feet in that camp," Ruisch says. "When I'm not there I feel like I should be there."

He admits he does worry about his son, 1,108 miles away, involved in the Occupy protests and demonstrations in New York.

Benjamin's parents got divorced when he was only a few years old, and he does not have any siblings, so it was just him and his dad growing up. His mom now lives in a small town and is fairly isolated from them. He and his dad didn't argue, but they didn't have anything in particular to bond over, either. When Benjamin graduated high school, he wanted to get out of Iowa, and he headed to New York. Now a full-time student waiting tables between semesters, he went east without much of a plan.

After Benjamin moved out, the burst of the housing bubble led to the failure of his dad's business, Doctor Mortgage, which "[prescribed] healthy home loans."

Ruisch says that when it comes to mortgage lenders, there are "a lot of greedy fingers in the pie." He insists he was probably among "the 1 percent" of brokers who were honest and never got on the subprime bandwagon. "I recall doing one subprime loan, but I didn't believe in them," he explains. "In the long term I knew I was doing the client a disservice."

Ruisch ended up filing for bankruptcy and lost his own home. He had to go through the foreclosure process, but then he found a job and signed a stipulated repayment plan agreement to postpone the foreclosure sale. About 10 months later, in April 2010, the lender bought the house Ruisch had lived in since 1993, the one where he had raised Benjamin as a single father.

"As of now I'm living in a house that I do not own and the sheriff can show up any time to give me an eviction," he says. But he's not sure of the status of his mortgage and is now working with the Iowa attorney general's office to try to get help to resolve it.

Ruisch says he's ready to move out -- he sold most of his belongings long ago. His boat was one of the first things to go -- giving up his dream of sailing to different major ports around the world. He's been looking for jobs in the San Francisco bay area -- in part to get closer to the ocean, but also to join Occupy Oakland.

Curious about others who had mortgage problems, Ruisch looked up eviction sales in Polk County, Iowa, where Des Moines is located. He was upset to find out that of 25 planned sheriff sales during the week of Thanksgiving, 24 included the homes of families, one of which was the family of an old friend.

Meanwhile, Benjamin was at a party in New York in October having an argument about the Occupy movement with some young adults he describes as more radical than himself. Shortly thereafter, he talked to his dad on the phone, and ended up having a long talk about the movement.

"The next day he called me and said he's going to set up a tent on the capital grounds -- he was the first one down there," Benjamin says. "That was really a shock for me to find out he was doing that, I guess. He's not the type in my mind. That's what's so exciting about this movement -- that maybe we're starting to break down the barriers."

Benjamin joined the Occupy Wall Street protests early in September. He spent a lot of time in Zuccotti Park, especially during big moments like Oct. 14, the morning protesters marched downtown after dodging Mayor Michael Bloomberg's threat to evict them. That day, he got caught in the middle of a scuffle between some cops and other protesters, taking a blow from a baton. Since Zuccotti was raided and evicted in mid-November, he says he's turned his focus more to protesting tuition hikes at City University of New York and helping with marches and demonstrations. He also started writing about his experience for a small magazine.

Benjamin says this is easily the most politically active he's ever been.

"It was just pretty clear from really early on that this was different," Benjamin says. "I had just kind of wanted to go and check it out. Before going down there maybe I wasn't completely convinced." He said seeing the energy and spending more and more time there had him hooked.

Raised in Carlisle, Iowa -- a small town of 3,400, just a few minutes south of Des Moines -- Benjamin was "shocked" to see the movement spread to his home state, despite seeing the energy in New York. "Iowa City I got, because of it being a college town," he said.

There was a time when Ruisch and his son only talked on the phone once a month. Now it's three or four times a week. Benjamin says they don't go into details about policy positions, just stick to the basic ideas.

"It's about the things we have in common rather than the things that set us apart," Benjamin said.

Ruisch has spent two years worrying about a possible eviction from his home. He joined the Occupy Des Moines protest and watched dozens of demonstrators get arrested on the lawn of the Iowa statehouse during their first event. After setting up a tent earlier in the day, Ruisch watched from a safe distance when police came so he would avoid arrest. It was his first time getting involved in a demonstration like that, and seeing his new friends being led into paddy wagons was more than he expected.

"I find it very annoying that I have been effectively put out of my home and then our state governor says I can't protest on the state capital grounds," Ruisch says.

The protest has since relocated to a city park near the capitol, after demonstrators scored a deal with the city council to allow them to be there without issue. Like Ruisch, not everyone stays the night, but he views it as his new community, one where he belongs.

"I think Dutch is expressing something that we all are feeling at one level or another," says Kelli Griffis, a fellow Des Moines protester in her early 30s. "These people have become my family. We stick up for each other and help each other, and we have squabbles just like any family does."

Griffis says people like Dutch Rusich, who went from zero political involvement to fully joining an Occupy site, finally feel like they're not the only ones who are frustrated -- they've found their allies.

"It's not something that's just an event," Griffis says. "We've gotten so kind of used to each other, we kind of understand how each other works and we all figure out how we work the best."

Yet Benjamin still finds it odd that this is happening back home in Iowa, the place he quickly left after high school. And his father is one of the last people he would have expected to join the movement. "I'm even more surprised that it's going as strong as it is, even in the face of the crackdown going all across the country. It's like this little peaceful oasis," Benjamin says.

But Ruisch has no hesitation about sticking with the protest, even if his primary contributions -- a single tent and his signature on the park permit -- have only a small impact.

"If each of us doesn't do something, who will do anything?" Ruisch asks, his voice breaking. "I do what I can to try to get our politicians to hear what's happening and going on."

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