10/31/2011 07:22 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

In Des Moines, A Few Occupiers Stand With The Many

Far from the sort of numbers seen in Manhattan or the pandemonium experienced in Oakland last week sits Occupy Des Moines, an encampment as committed to addressing the economic inequity in the United States as they are to promoting autonomy within the 'occupy' movement.

But at midday on October 27, except for the approximately 25 empty tents spread out around the grass in Stewart Park and the handful of demonstrators wandering the site, Occupy Des Moines was practically unnoticeable.

"We are the most sickeningly polite protest you will ever see," joked Jordan Riley, 19, a mainstay at the nearly three-week-long demonstration. For now, the number of people participating ranges depending on the day.

And as to the whereabouts of his fellow protesters on Thursday afternoon, Riley answered simply, "Some are at school, but most are at work."

Occupy Des Moines encompasses a two square block area bordering a residential neighborhood on two sides and a busy four lane road on the others. The area could be described most accurately as a tent community, when you consider its array of amenities, and the care demonstrators have exhibited to maintain it.

The landscape is practically spotless, except for a few chalk drawings. Fallen tree leaves have been raked and bagged, and most waste is either composted or recycled. Even the smokers are said to be disposing of cigarettes in an environmentally friendly way.The location of tents has changed at least once in order to mitigate any long-term damage to the park's grass.

Miscellaneous piles of bagged leaves can be seen throughout the park, with some campers using them as tent insulation from the rapidly approaching Iowa winter. Occupy Des Moines has erected both a communications and first-aid tent, as well as a fully stocked and enclosed kitchen area.

According to Riley, Occupy Des Moines also adheres to a strict noise curfew.

Riley, who is a student at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), and the four other protesters gathered on Thursday stated that most Occupy Des Moines participants either work or live nearby, contradicting the widespread speculation that the occupy movement has become a haven for the homeless. The camp has become a stopover of sorts for small packs of travelers, nearly all of whom identify with the views of Occupy Des Moines, he said.

Des Moines resident Kaylnn Strain, a self-described "practicing Muslim and (University of Iowa) Hawkeye fan," said she is an unemployed nurse-aid. The 50-something-year-old woman has been treating basic medical needs at the encampment since the start of the occupation.

Similar to participants in larger occupations in other cities, these representatives were unwilling to identify a singular reason for their collective involvement. They also see no foreseeable end to their occupation.

"We're preparing for winter," said Riley. "It will be interesting to see where the momentum is at that point."

The small group was unyielding in its reluctance to convey specific intentions of the movement, avoiding any sign of a hierarchy or coordinated leadership structure.

Iowa native Ross Grooter, 37, debunked the assertion that there is a direct link to organized (union) labor, as has been reported in other cities.

"If there is a particular organizer, I am unaware of it," he said.

Still, at least one Des Moines based social advocacy group, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, has participated at events and, according to media reports, even assisted with preliminary logistics such as ordering portable toilets and secured permits for demonstrators to initially remain on state property at the occupation's outset.

When pressed for a reason for spending day and night in the park, each of the assembled offered a different position.

"This is a moral movement," said Riley, who explained that his participation does not reflect a desire to see a specific policy change from the president nor a landmark piece of legislation from Congress. "I'm not here to oppose or support a proposition. I'm seeking long-term structural change."

Strain confessed her desire to fight for an enhanced form of democracy, free of corporate involvement.

"I want to get corporations out of elections, out of government altogether," she said.

Grooter said he fears the impact wealth disparity will have on future generations.

"People are hurting," he said. "If the system doesn't correct itself, it will be our kids fighting the same battle we are fighting now."

But as welcoming and mild-tempered as it was in Stewart Park was on Thursday, Occupy Des Moines is not without its fair share of critics and partisan observers.

In addition to the people who drive by the park yelling derogatory remarks in the direction of the encampment, Occupy Des Moines has also garnered the attention of elected representatives and state party leadership.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley was reported to have pigeon-holed the Occupy Des Moines activists as "A lot of unemployed young people looking for some dates."

Riley shook his head when reminded of the senator's assessment.

And during an October 19 interview in Urbandale, Kevin McLaughlin, Chairman of Iowa's Polk County Republicans, described Occupy Wall Street protesters as "unclean, poorly educated, and disrespectful."

Riley again shook his head when informed of the chairman's remark.

"If these guys would come down here and talk to us, individually or as a group, I'm sure they would come away with a very different perspective," Riley said.

On the Democratic side, Sue Dvorsky, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the people involved in the occupy movement are "not a group of Democratic partisans."

Speaking by phone on Friday, the Senate Communications Director for the Iowa Democratic Party, Ben Foecke, confirmed the use of Dvorsky's broader characterization of the occupation:

"These are people who are in the broadly-defined middle class talking about the concerns that they've got and how they feel like the system is not working for them," Dvorsky said. "The Democratic Party couldn't agree with them more."

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement was unavailable for comment on Friday after repeated calls to their office, but the organization has previously criticized both Republicans and Democrats alike for not doing more to support issues such as health care, foreclosures, financial regulation and the environment.

At the local level, following the Occupy Des Moines' initial eviction from the State Capitol, where State troopers arrested over 30 protesters on October 9 and charged them with violating the Capitol's 11p.m. curfew, the Des Moines mayor promised the protesters they were safe to camp in Stewart Park for the indefinite future.

Riley said they've received strong support from the local neighborhood association, which now enjoys a "24-hour de facto security detail" in the form of the group's varying number of overnight occupants. Additionally, Occupy Des Moines has received donations of food and clothing from neighbors and supporters of all ages and affiliations.

Occupy Des Moines has also mobilized new participants through targeted "Direct Actions," which have been publicized on websites and via social media. Such Direct Actions have included: a march to the headquarters of the Iowa Democratic Party; a protest of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's speech in Iowa on October 26; and an October 28, "We are all Scott Olson" vigil, march and rally to "condemn state repression of nonviolent social change movement," which was attended by over 100 people, according to media reports.

With the Iowa Caucus scheduled for January 3, and the likelihood of much colder temperatures in the months ahead, those still occupying Des Moines after the new year can expect a fair amount of national media attention. How much direct dialogue Occupy Des Moines will have with candidates vying for the Republic nomination remains to be seen.

Grooter, for one, said he would appreciate the chance to speak with the candidates.

"I agree with Pat Robertson's recent comment," Grooter said.

"These candidates have gotten so radical, and so out of touch with the average American. I would love to tell them face to face."

Strain, meanwhile, was outraged to hear Republican candidate Herman Cain blame the nation's current economic situation on the unemployed during a recent CNN debate.

"That's insulting and just so extreme," she said.

Thursday's visit to Stewart Park possibly proves that media attention and sheer numbers are not what will make this unique movement sustainable. The handful of individuals occupying Des Moines last week were comfortable being just a few more of the people who have stood up and asked to be counted.

How people view Occupy Des Moines' contribution to the overall movement is arguably determined by one's answer to this question:

Is it harder to stand up for what you believe in with 500 or 5000 people, or with only five?

Michael J. Hunt is a political observer, trained in Oakland, based in the Heartland. If you would like to contribute stories to citizen coverage of the 2012 elections and other American political events, please contact