Occupy St. Louis: This is what democracy looks like


It’s not easy to compete with baseball for participation, media attention and parking spaces in downtown St. Louis when the Cardinals are in the National League Championship Series. So you have to count it as a significant victory when the leaderless, grassroots, pro-democracy  group known as Occupy St. Louis announces a rally and draws 1,000 people to the best rallying spot in St. Louis—Kiener Plaza.

Mingling with the crowd, I saw retired people, union members, pro-choice activists, teachers, nurses, university students, office workers, lots of media [about time!] and many individuals—like me—who share a sense of outrage at the corporate greed, anti-democratic attitudes and economic injustices that are wrecking America.  Okay, so it wasn’t the biggest turnout of all time—but, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in an editorial today, this is a startup, grassroots movement, and this is a good start.

It was a low-key event, with none of the star-power speakers, religious invocations or confrontational tactics that one might expect. The only speech was delivered by a young woman who said she had never before been an activist, but who had visited the Occupy St. Louis encampment and had been inspired to stay.  She spoke movingly, as one of the people—a person who is struggling economically and who is being left behind as wealth continues to be ever more concentrated in the tiny, top sliver of the super-rich.

We chanted as, I’m sure, other Occupy [your city here] demonstrators did, in what I’m told is 120 U.S. cities. We held up homemade signs. We wore union t-shirts and slapped on buttons that identified us as the 99%.

And we marched. A local drumline led the way, giving our march a pulsating rhythm. One block away, we paused at Bank of America, which was ringed with barricades and police [who were the model of restraint, even though they came prepared with plastic handcuffs, just in case.]  And, as we walked the rest of our downtown route—peaceful and uncontested—I had a few thoughts…

-Many people, clearly visiting St. Louis for the baseball series, came out of their hotels and watched the march. They seemed bemused by the demonstration. I’m sure some of them saw us as crazed communists and hippies, but I hope that we raised at least a bit of awareness. Among the onlookers were hotel workers—I hope they knew that we were also marching for them and for everyone who’s in a low-wage job [or more than one], or underemployed, or unemployed, or reaching the end of his or her unemployment benefits, or in foreclosure, or living on a relative’s couch, or facing a giant medical bill, or disabled by an injury or psychological trauma caused by a pointless war.

-I also noted that some of us seem to be the same people who have been protesting some injustice or war or another for the past 40 years. I couldn’t help but ask myself why we keep having to do this, and why it has become politically and socially acceptable for lawmakers and individuals to be selfish and callous and hateful toward people whose only sin is to not have achieved wealth.

-As we marched across the busy intersection of 4th St. and Market, we held up traffic—probably a lot of people coming downtown for the ballgame. I’m sure we inconvenienced more than one wealthy person in an oversized, gas-guzzling luxury SUV. Did they know that they were the people we were demonstrating against? Did they care?

Once, when we paused in front of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse [where Dred Scott lost his plea to remain a freed slave], I stood next to a woman cradling a six-month-old baby in a wraparound sling. Amid the din, he was sleeping peacefully.  He and his mother reminded me of my own adult children and their kids, and the threat to their futures that today’s inequalities, injustices and insensitive policies pose—and the reason that I’m still marching after all these years.

About Gloria Shur Bilchik:
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.