Your Daily Guide to St. Louis Arts & Entertainment

Monday, October 31, 2011 / 8:30 AM

The Culture (and Culture Clashes) of Occupy STL

The Culture (and Culture Clashes) of Occupy STL

Photograph by Thomas Crone

When it comes to Occupy STL, my timing’s been all off. Because for two straight weeks, I headed down to the Occupy STL site near the Morton D. May Amphitheatre in Kiener Plaza. On both Saturdays, my understanding was bands would take the stage around 6 p.m., when sundown hits downtown. On the first week—the 22nd—no band was booked, though I’d read on Facebook there would be some music taking place. This kind of thing can happen, of course, with a project like Occupy, which is run in a grassroots, everyone-as-leaders fashion.

This past weekend, on Saturday the 29th, there was a bit of extra confusion. And at the risk of incorporating a bit too much first-person in this piece, forgive me that tactic in order to better tell the story.

For the past two-plus years, I’ve shared time alongside Bob Reuter on KDHX’s Friday afternoon schedule. This past week, Bob’s Scratchy Records hosted a half-dozen Occupy members; during the first half-hour of the show, three or four of them talked about the meaning behind the Occupy movement and how St. Louis was both similar to and unique from other Occupy sites. (Reuter joked that he’d invited a member or two, and an entire tribe came on in.) The idea was to note that Reuter’s excellent band, Alley Ghost, was set to appear at the May Ampitheatre at 6 p.m. on Saturday night. When arriving at the encampment, though, posters said that speeches would be taking place through that time, with live music scheduled for 7 p.m. Not a big deal, especially after running into Paul, one of the Occupiers from the station visit. Paul (and most of this Occupy crew seem to prefer the first-name-only approach to life), said that he was excited and booked the act himself. He then went onto another errand and I didn’t see him again.

If the band wasn’t going to start right away, that was cool. There were speakers, all of them riffing on the kinds of class issues that define the Occupy aesthetic. I interviewed some people, not only for a look at the cultural components, but also regarding the food situation there. (The notes will be worked into a piece for SLM Daily this Wednesday.) The timepiece kept ticking, and no band emerged, but I continued drifting around, looking for little cultural coverage to work into... well, whatever the piece was meant to be. If Occupy had taught me anything, to date, it’s that the site moves on a more fluid clock than most and adjustment to expectations is necessary.

Some cultural observations, then:

The stage at Occupy STL is set up right on the traditional stage footprint at the May, but with a large backdrop used for two purposes. On one side is a sizable, graf-painted Occupy STL logo; the other side is blank, and used for screening documentaries. For years, Downtown organizations have struggled to bring people into this public space. Countless jazz bands have played to small, indifferent, lunchtime crowds at the May Amphitheatre. So seeing that bowl relatively filled for speakers discussing postal worker politics, rail crashes and early 19th-century Socialist writings is a twist, to say the least.

Just as readings are a big part of the Occupy feel, so are written materials. This is one of the more cool aspects of the Occupy site. When looking at the stage, you notice a tent just off the left, beyond the food tent and at the edge of a small hill. Inside’s the library, filled with dozens of books. As you’d expect, the readings here are a couple levels more serious than the magazine stack at your dentist’s office. A Naomi Klein book sits prominently on a center shelf, her name jumping off the book’s spine. Magazines, ’zines, books and small tracts all mix and mingle. I picked up a tract on anarchism, written in 2010. Tucking it into my knapsack for later reading, I figure that I’ll eventually leave it in another location with a likely reader, figuring that the take-one-leave-one ethic’s in play.

Also interesting are the countless tracts and broadsides tacked up to anything stationary. Every pole within the Kiener complex is given over to stickers and printed matter, many of the readings dealing with other Occupy situations around the country and the world. Looking at the date stamps, most of the stories have been printed off in the last day or two. But news travels fast these days, and it’s interesting to see this kind of old-style, public square-like posting taking place. Occasional leafletters also work the crowd; in one case, a descendant of the famed turn-of-the-last-century labor leader Samuel Gompers handed out directions on how to get a free book from the latter-day Gompers on Google Books. And if you can find a more-quirky intersection of old-and-new worlds colliding in one exchange of information, we’d love to take part in it.

It almost goes without saying that great art is within easy walking distance of the Occupy STL site. As in walking just a few-dozen yards to the Citygarden. While there are lots of tiny visual clashes that can occur when you drop this kind of protest in the heart of a city (this one, or any one), it’s fun to walk by and through Citygarden on the way Occupy, where traveling kids in their patched-up dungarees walk opposite a well-heeled tourist family. In both cases, these are folks who don’t take mail in St. Louis, and are here for very different reasons. But in the common space provided by Citygarden, there’s room for all kinds. This place has been hailed, and for good reason, but some of the mixed uses it’s getting right now really proves the enduring value of a venue like this.

And while we’ll save the bulk of our conversation about the food situation at Occupy STL for Wednesday’s posting on SLM Daily, there’s at least some need to discuss the cultural clash taking on city sidewalks near the May/Kiener complex. As noted in the paragraph above, there’s no shortage of low-income people mixing in the May, and there’s no lack of moneyed folk coming downtown on a weekend evening for a meal, a meeting, or a party of some sort. And when these folks come in contact, it’s more than a little interesting to watch the social dynamics play out. If you read the classic Jane Jacobs work The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in college, refresh the messages from that book by walking along Market. In one second, you see protesters holding signs of every left-wing stripe; on the other, horse carts ferrying tourists on a 30-minute tour. At moments like this, diversity is alive and well in Downtown.

And if there’s one eye-popping visual that out-“wows” all the rest, it’s the large “Go Cardinals” sign that greets you as you arrive at the western end of the campsite. While some early images from Occupy showed a Cardinals logo with the birds-on-bat sitting amidst the words “Class War,” that seemed to fit the mood, somehow, much more accurately. To see the 99% supporting the local baseball nine, well, it’s quirky. Damned odd, in fact. But the intersection of partying Cards fans and the Occupy site have left some indelible moments, for all, to believe the stories. In the case of Occupy and the World Series running simultaneously, karma timing did work?

And weren’t we talking about bad timing, earlier?

So back to our musical introduction. According to Reuter, he and his band showed up at the site on Saturday, on time and ready to set up their gear. His contacts were gone, though, and those in facilitation roles were unsure about their arrival and unable to come up with solution. After some minutes of negotiation, everyone moved on. There wouldn’t be a band, after all, despite whatever good intentions went into booking and promoting the show. As I left the event, in the dark and a good deal after my original target time of 6 p.m., one of the afternoon’s more active organizers got on the microphone and small PA.

“Does anyone out there have a guitar?” he asked the crowd. “I know some of you do. Bring it down here.”

And with that, Occupy was filling the stage with sound for the evening. I imagined protest songs floating into the chilly October air, but didn’t stick around to actually hear them. For this Saturday, the second in a row, my ability to adapt had been challenged to the break point.

Maybe next week.

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