Occupying utopia

A courthouse lawn becomes a community



Acoustic guitar music drifted across the lawn outside the Missoula County Courthouse on Sunday evening, Oct. 16. A handful of people danced on the sidewalk where the day's drizzle had rendered chalk drawings all but unrecognizable. Others ladled soup into bowls at a folding card table. Signs announcing the death of the working class and calling for financial equality rested against retaining walls and lampposts.

Missoula was in its eighth day of occupation.

The freshness and vigor of the Oct. 8 Occupy Missoula march had disappeared, replaced with the staid normalcy of a small, self-governing community. Security details prepared for their nightly rounds. Volunteers packed up books and bags, took down tents and raked grass, temporarily clearing the grounds to allow the courthouse sprinkler system to be cleared Monday morning.

The permanent population here had dwindled to around seven. Clusters of homeless folk mingled on the periphery, if they haven't already joined the camp. A dry-erase board mapped out the daily schedule, from art jam hours to the General Assembly.

"For me, it's about giving voice to the people again," said Indiana native and current courthouse lawn resident Shandor Jackson. "It's about actually making it a democracy instead of an oligarchy."

Chat with anyone here and they'll tell you the system is broken. The country's richest percent rake in money while the other 99 percent struggle to get by. The government insists on bailing out top earners while unemployment remains high and job prospects stay low. People aren't getting a decent education, says local Craig Nelson. They don't understand their basic rights. "The president is saying he's Jesus Christ and Hari Krishna and shit," Jackson said.

Since mid-September, the Occupy movement has spread well beyond its base on Wall Street. Solidarity protests have cropped up in dozens of major U.S. cities, from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine. Activists have been pepper-sprayed in New York City. Their camps were torn down in Chicago. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the arrest of tent occupants in Westlake Park on Oct. 5, and outlawed the use of umbrellas as shelter on Oct. 8. Cops in Seattle even blockaded the space beneath awnings, forcing protesters out into the rain.

And the movement has gone global. There's Occupy Iceland, Occupy Oslo, Occupy Lisbon, Occupy Taipei. Graffiti referencing the U.S. protests has appeared in Croatia. Protesters marched in Brussels and in Santiago, denouncing corporate greed. More than 100 police were injured in Rome late last week as rioters linked to the peaceful protest torched cars and vandalized banks and churches. Authorities responded with tear gas. Two protesters had fingers amputated following incidents with smoke bombs.

Missoula's first week of occupation proved sedate by comparison. Yes, there were hecklers.

"You'll hear people drive or walk by and shout 'Get a job' and stuff," Jackson says. "Well, that'd be wonderful."

Still, the city hasn't given the movement any resistance. Local police have even kept hecklers at bay.

"Things have been totally peaceful," says Dean Graham, a former government contractor who specializes in biomass energy. "The movement's had support from the city, the county, the police. They recognize that this is a peaceful movement, and they see it happening in New York, L.A.—all over the world. Changes have to be made."

Chris Parks came to the courthouse looking for change. He abandoned medical studies at the University of Montana when he began to feel that "the college system works just like a corporation." That's not right, he says. Now, after eight days, Parks's focus has shifted. The courthouse lawn is a living, breathing lesson in community building, he says. The protesters are functioning like a self-sustaining tribe.

"Whatever, the outcome is, I don't care anymore," Parks says. "We've already accomplished something."

Occupy Missoula does have some kinks to iron out, Parks says. The General Assemblies aren't going so well. Some protesters don't believe the movement should be structured. At this point, it remains intentionally leaderless. That tends to slow discussions, especially when all decisions must be made by consensus, like some sort of condensed democratic utopia. According to Parks, the system proves "overly taxing" at times. People keep getting "caught up in semantics."

So Parks didn't look entirely excited the following afternoon, Oct. 17, when the General Assembly kicked off around 5:30 with a crowd of 23. They recapped the weekend art jam and the 100-strong protest staged outside the offices of Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sen. Max Baucus. They shared the national and global news from the Occupy movement. One announcer told the assembly that the movement—already alive in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell—has taken root in Butte and Billings. Nearly every major city in Montana is now occupied.

But the Missoula camp was getting tired. People began to peel away from the Monday meeting after an hour, smoking cigarettes on the fringes or snagging free sandwiches from two Jimmy John's employees.

Moderator Debby Florence tried her best to keep people on task. With the relocation of the camp from the southeast lawn to the southwest lawn, a number of new proposals came up for discussion: Do the occupiers move to a vacant building come winter? Do they construct a longhouse outside the courthouse to stay warm?

These questions seemed to fall by the wayside as attention ebbed. Florence shifted the topic to pleas for support.

We want to stay, she said. We want to occupy Missoula throughout the winter. "But the camp feels really unsupported right now. We have a lot of support, but it's like this drive-by support."

A few minutes later, a car drove by and honked its horn for the protesters. Florence wheeled around, pointing the megaphone toward the street, and said, "Get out of your car!"

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