KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The number of people who've taken to the streets in downtown Manhattan has swelled to thousands after three weeks of protests. The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the country, including to an encampment by the Federal Reserve in Penn Valley Park. OccupyKC protesters have used a giant shipping container sculpture that spells out IOU/USA as a backdrop for their rallies.
On a windy Wednesday afternoon (October 5, 2011), on a slip of grass under the shadow of Kansas City's Federal Reserve building, anywhere from 20 to 70 members of the group Occupy KC held signs with slogans like, "Are you mad? So are we: Come join the conversation," and, "We are the 99 percent."
But what does that mean, exactly? What are these protests about?
Evan Harmon from Lawrence was at the protest with his eight-year-old son, who was "still kind of learning the basics of who the president is and how taxes work," Harmon said.
"[I] told him everyone kind of pays a little taxes and the politicians decide how to use those taxes, and ideally they should use those taxes how the voters want them to use it."
It's a good concept, but not exactly what always happens, Harmon said, so the protests are a way for people to express their discontent over misuse of their tax money.
Kansas City resident Shamus Quinly, though, took a different tack on the group's mission.
"I think one of the biggest issues that's not being addressed currently is corporate personhood," he said.
"Once corporations gained the right to corporate personhood, they were then allowed to fund campaigns, and by doing that they can pretty much choose who's going to be in power based on who has like interests," Quinly said.
John Mohr, of Liberty, further muddied the waters.
"One of the reasons that I came is because I afraid that if we don't wean ourselves off of oil in the next 150 years, we will run out of oil and we won't be able to sustain our lifestyles," he said.
"I came with that in mind, but I've stayed because I'm learning about a lot of other reasons to be angry."
Mohr's sentiment goes a long way in explaining the protestors' mixed-motivations; The Occupy KC group is not protesting one single issue.
Liberals are angry, too
Like the Tea Party, which started as a grassroots, non-partisan protest movement, the Occupiers are frustrated with a wide range of policies and government conduct in general. For the protestors, though, the Occupy movement is more than just "liberal-flavored Tea." While many acknowledged their liberal leanings, most were careful to stressed that they weren't bound by party lines.
"I think I once almost would have called myself a Democrat in the Democrat-Republican split, but today I see it as the lesser of two evils," Mohr said.
Like many in the Tea Party, Occupy KC protestors were more concerned with their pet issues than they were with traditional partisanship.
"I enjoy some ideas from the Democratic Party and I also enjoy some ideas from the Republican Party," Quinly said, "but there are some issues that are very important that neither of those parties ever cover."
Bringing community together
The Occupy movement's ambiguity doesn't seem to bother anyone in the group itself. In fact, Tyler Crane, who started one of the more popular Occupy KC Facebook pages, thinks that the ambiguity is a strength.
"The underlying message here is about bringing community together so that we can share a common voice to find solutions to problems," Crane said. "We can't just attack individual issues."
This aspiration to include all points of view was reflected in others, too.
"I don't think it has to be just a liberal thing or a conservative thing," Harmon said. "It really can be - like the slogans and the signs say - 'We are the 99 percent.' I think it really has a chance to be something like that."
In that light, the group's ambiguity makes sense: any organization attempting to include 99 percent of the population risks lacking a clear, concise message.
So, could that ambiguity jeopardize the Occupy movement's future? How do you make any progress when you can only agree that progress needs to be made?
"A lot of people will look at us as a protest movement and there might be some radicalization -we might be disorganized" Crane said, but the movement is "very early in its infancy, and nothing [like this] can happen overnight."
Maybe he's right, but that's a pretty long-term strategy. Especially for a group of people who have committed to sleeping outside until they see some substantive changes on whatever issue they might be able to agree on.