The rhetoric was rough but the action was mostly peaceful as about 300 Missoulians launched a local version of the Occupy Wall Street protests on Saturday.
After an hour of soapbox lecturing in Caras Park, the crowd marched up Higgins Avenue and over to the Missoula County Courthouse. There the talking continued and some members vowed to camp on the lawn as part of a call for change in U.S. government.
“This is a new process for all of us,” said Alexandria “Rain” Smith, shortly after the crowd reached the courthouse. “Nobody’s had a chance to start a real democratic process. So we decided to use the courthouse lawn as our place of occupation.”
That came as a surprise to Russ Smith, whose daughter, Taylor, was getting married on the courthouse gazebo Saturday afternoon. But a woman in the Occupy Missoula crowd used a technique called “human microphone,” where she’d speak a short sentence and everyone else would repeat her words. In that fashion, the crowd learned the wedding party’s request that Occupy Missoula members stay on the east side of the lawn while they finished their ceremony on the west side. The crowd moved over.
But the mellow behavior clashed sharply with the signs and words of many members who argued they’d been betrayed by both their political leaders and capitalist society.
“Liberalism in the U.S. is dead,” computer programmer Robbie Liben said during a short speech in Caras Park. “We need to abandon the Democratic Party and take that energy elsewhere.”
Liben accused President Barack Obama of being beholden to the owners of big corporations in prolonging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, extending the Patriot Act and postponing new environmental quality controls. But while he argued that capitalism should be overthrown, he also warned that a strong central government usually tends to abuse its power.
“I know we’re smart enough to figure out something other than capitalism,” high school teacher Jay Bostrom told the crowd. “We used to believe the Earth was flat. Five hundred years from now, we’re going to look back at this generation and say ‘I can’t believe they hung on to capitalism for so long.’ ”
Since the Occupy Wall Street protests started in New York a month ago, the New York Times reports more than 200 Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have carried the message to the rest of the country. In the past week, similar demonstrations have occurred in Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn.
While an Oct. 1 march on the Brooklyn Bridge resulted in about 700 arrests, Missoula’s activity was notable for restraint. Several people hid their faces with scarves or Guy Fawkes masks, and many of the marchers used a lane of Higgins Avenue on their way to the courthouse. But police did not confront the group and motorists appeared to tolerate the delay.
The messages occasionally got mixed. A group of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul’s supporters waved signs on one edge of the courthouse lawn, and someone in a bandana hung a “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag (commonly seen at tea party events) from the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
Charlie McGrath brought one of the more unusual visual props – a 3-foot-by-4-foot canvas painting filled with anti-corporate slogans and scenes of dread.
“It’s a work in progress,” McGrath said of the work he titled “Empire in Decline.” “I brought it down to see it in daylight and to see the reaction. I like to see how people react to it.”
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